Monday, March 10, 2014


Severance Hall
March 7

A holdover from an era of understated elegance.

Rudolph Buchbinder was his usual brilliant self playing Rachmaninoff on Friday night. But the star of the show was the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant conductor, Brett Mitchell. Like a pinch-hitter in baseball, Mitchell has to be prepared to step up to the plate every week, though he rarely gets the call. When Franz Welser-Möst phoned in sick on Friday afternoon, it was Mitchell’s time to shine.

Which he did immediately with Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This is a piece that can become heavy and schmaltzy, and almost always does. The audience fixates on the familiar melody in the 18th variation, and if it gushes, everybody goes home happy. Mitchell took the opposite tack, starting with a light, agile sound that complemented the dramatic piano lines, providing a buoyant backdrop that didn’t get in the way. He stayed just shy of sentimental in the melody, letting it swell but keeping it clean and crisp, never overwhelming the soloist.

Buchbinder is a pro’s pro, a holdover from an era of playing without histrionics. He came out on stage in an open-necked white shirt, de rigueur casual for a Fridays@7 concert, sat arm’s-length from the keyboard and went to work. No fancy flourishes, no body language or banging, just a breathtakingly proficient reading that was both smooth and smart. His piano lines flowed with an easy mastery, riding the music and keeping it in balance, giving the solos color and character, then blending into the orchestral passages to add depth and texture.

What may be most remarkable about Buchbinder is the way he manages to infuse a piece he has obviously played many times with spontaneity, crafting a fresh, sparkling sound – in this case, in tandem with the conductor. Some notes fall by the wayside, but Buchbinder is not interested in a note-perfect performance. He has an artist’s sense of the bigger picture, which he builds in grand strokes and small ones, finely detailed in some sections, broad and sweeping in others, pulling the audience along in a rush of pure musicality.

The abbreviated Friday program offered a brief nod to the Richard Strauss anniversary year, the composer’s 1888 tone poem Don Juan. Mitchell offered a brisk, lively reading, not very deep or emotional, instead polished and bright. It started off a bit thin, but the sound filled out nicely in the later sections of the piece, with the conductor showing fine control of the orchestra. One might have wished for more color from the horns and woodwinds. That, however, is the sort of fine-tuning conductors do in rehearsal, not from the podium in performance.

And a quick follow-up from the other Strauss – Johann Jr. – was effervescent, brimming with gaiety and charm. The waltz From the Mountains sounded anything but clichéd, flush with warm tones, sharp percussion, burnished horns and a champagne brio. The brief pauses, a trademark of Strauss waltzes, were clear and precise, putting a fine edge on the whirling melodies. A closing Czárdás opened with a witty gasp from the violins, then set off on a free-spirited romp, galloping to a snappy finish.

That propelled the audience into the foyer, where the New York Gypsy All-Stars were already playing. It was a bit of a shock, with the last strains of 19th-century Vienna still hanging in the air when they were suddenly steamrolled by modern electric pop. But no one seemed to mind, as the foyer quickly filled and the crowd overflowed up the stairs and onto the mezzanine.

And why not? The band was good. Still, the energy started inside the hall, where a last-minute sub had just hit a home run.

For more on Rudolf Buchbinder:

Photo by Marco Borggreve

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