It was good, solid programing solidly performed this weekend at Symphony Hall, at least judging from Friday evening's Utah Symphony concert.
Looking back, I find I said something very similiar the last time guest conductor George Cleve was in town, so at least one of us is consistent. And although "solid" may not be the first word that springs to mind when it comes to Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1, between him and soloist Carter Brey it was plain to see why this piece, too, seems well on its way to becoming mainstream repertoire.Certainly it affords the cellist plenty of opportunity for technical display. The high register in particular cannot be easy to negotiate, and in the cadenza that comprises the third section the soloist can even be heard to accompany himself, as it were, via plucked strings above the bow.
But beyond that the piece has a definable soul, very like that which emerges from the composer's most personal essays, such as the Eighth Quartet. As such it stands as one of his finest works, its outer movements dancing sardonically as the anxiety within even these pages cuts to the bone.
To his credit Brey maintained this uneasy balance, with clean and purposeful playing that gradually sank ever more deeply into the music's emotional core. Against this Cleve kept things moving, in a powerfully molded accompaniment in which even the solo horn registered strongly. Ditto the clarinet in the slow movement, here communicating the pain and agitation of a subdued lament, giving way in turn to the desolation of the solo cadenza and the muscular spark of the finale.
"Powerful" is another word I have used to describe Cleve's work before, and this time it applied additionally to his handling of the other two works on the program, Rossini's "Semiramide" Overture and the Brahms First Symphony.
From the introductory crescendo of the Rossini, one was impressed by the hair-trigger dynamics, something that carried over into the main allegro, its quivering string figures tautly controlled. The result was an exciting rendition that showed the Utah Symphony at close to its best.
Likewise the Brahms, not the romantically impassioned statement Andrew Litton served up the last time the orchestra played this piece but a leaner, more disciplined view that proved no less effective, hammering home from the opening bar.
This was, in short, Brahms the classicist, in the controlled vigor of the opening movement the natural heir to Beethoven. Only in the finale did Cleve permit himself a bit of sentiment, and that fleetingly. Elsewhere this was a resolutely unindulgent reading, its forceful nature underscored in the outer movements by the deliberately clipped timpani strokes.
Even the slow movement kept its expressivity within bounds (including Ralph Matson's violin solos), as did the Un Poco Allegretto, here notable for its forward motion. But within that framework both the horn and flute solos in the finale emerged heroically, as did the strongly propelled finish.
-REPEAT PERFORMANCE: Among recordings of the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto, the choice for me lies between the newer of Rostropovich's two recordings, on Erato, remarkable for its depth and penetration, and Heinrich Schiff's with the composer's son Maxim on Philips, coupled with the haunting Second Concerto.
In the Brahms First Symphony, by contrast, it is largely older recordings to which I would direct the first-time buyer, specifically Toscanini (RCA or Hunt) or Boult (Nixa or EMI), the splendid Chesky CD reissue of Horenstein's or, outstanding among bargain issues, Jochum (EMI) and Walter (CBS).