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Pianist's shows in debut he's force of musical nature

Friday, April 11, 2003
Donald Rosenberg - Plain Dealer Music Critic

The three Russian composers who are keeping the Cleveland Orchestra extremely busy this week with guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen have a way of treating music in the most elemental ways. And the performances last night at Severance Hall went far in grabbing the listener by the ears and not letting go.

This was especially true when Alexander Toradze took to the stage as piano soloist in Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35. But there also were moments in Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bald Mountain" and Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" when the fierce aspects crackled with electricity.

Still, back to Toradze, the Russian-born pianist who was making his debut with the orchestra. The Shostakovich concerto can come across with a bit too much impishness at the expense of its dark corners if the musicians aren't careful to explore its subversive sides. That was certainly not the case here.

Toradze made sure that every manic gesture was savagely etched, and he applied poignant delicacy to the slow movement's magical utterances. He is a pianist with seemingly endless reserves of power, and his acrobatic fingers know no bounds. He produced massive sonorities that sometimes threatened to cover the orchestra, yet the silken lines also were beautifully in place.

Perhaps a bit of the wit in the last movement wasn't quite tapped, though it might emerge in subsequent performances. In any case, Toradze is a true force of musical nature whom we should hear in other repertoire. Salonen was on top of every swift and shimmering turn of phrase, and the orchestra's Michael Sachs played the solo trumpet part with plenty of elan.

Salonen, the dynamic music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, put his stamp on the original 1987 version of Mussorgsky's "Night on the Bald Mountain" by digging into the terrifying activity and maintaining forward, almost vehement motion. The piece is better known in Rimsky-Korsakov's more glamorous reworking, which brings coherence to a score that can feel fragmented and blunt.

The program's blockbuster promised to be Stravinsky's seminal evocation of pagan rituals in the good old springtime. Almost 90 years after its scandalous Parisian premiere, "The Rite of Spring" still has the ability to knock musicians and listeners out of their seats with its bold innovations in rhythm, harmony and instrumental color.

Somehow, last night's performance was only sporadically involving. Salonen laid out the score with abundant confidence, easily negotiating its tricky shapes, urging things on an inevitable, often breathless course and suggesting that the narrative's sacrifices are particularly gruesome.

But the undercurrent of mystery that should pervade the piece wasn't always sustained, and too much of the playing, while precise and expert, sounded mechanical. Maybe the suspense will mount strikingly during the final performances at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow.



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