by Anthony Kershaw
Haydn: Symphony No. 85 “La Reine”
Shostakovich: Symphony No 5
The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the world’s finest. So, it’s a happy day in Toronto when a thoroughbred like the Cleveland comes to town. Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst since 2002, the Cleveland Orchestra is renowned for its refinement and play with flawless tuning and innate musicality. And, the band is peppered with world class soloists.
All these musical attributes were on show last night in Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto’s recently refurbished home of the Toronto Symphony. The orchestra is at the start of a long tour and are heading to Amsterdam this evening. They brought with them an eclectic mix of Debussy, Haydn and Shostakovich. It was, on paper, an odd program, with no concerted work and no connective theme. No loss to the audience, though, as the Cleveland put on a show of international calibre.
Welser-Möst has complete control of his orchestra. He is blessed with a clear, concise beat (no histrionics or dancing), and had very musical insights into the scores. The opening Debussy was given a no fuss, no muss performance. The perfectly blended brass interjected powerful sounds, the woodwind solos were exquisite and the strings were lustrous. The sheen of the strings was, for me, the highlight of the evening, in an evening of musical highs.
Even though Shostakovich’s amazing 5th Symphony was the main course, it was the magnificent performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 85 “La Reine” that caught my ear consistently. Ensemble was flawless and Welser-Möst’s interpretation was very musical. As Gary Hanson, the orchestra’s Canadian-born executive director, mentioned in his interesting pre concert talk, this was to be ‘big band’ Haydn. The audience was not disappointed. Interestingly, he commented on the hall’s sound in comparison to the orchestra’s own fabled Severance Hall, and was hoping that the Toronto audience would be able to hear the extreme dynamics that this orchestra brings to its concerts. In fact, the dynamics were amazing, from whisper quiet of the full orchestra to thundering fortissimos.
The Shostakovich 5th was also played very beautifully. It was here, however, where some cracks in the usually impenetrable Cleveland armour were heard. Maybe the result of fatigue or lack of concentration during the opening night of a long tour (the Cleveland now has residencies in Miami and Vienna), some tentative string entries and some fluffs in brass and woodwind solos popped up a little too frequently. Yet, no one could fault the orchestra for its intensity and attention to Franz Welser-Möst’s direction.