CSO, Spano combine for exceptional show

Jeremy Denk
Cincinnati Enquirer

By Mary Ellyn Hutton

Everything about Friday morning’s Cincinnati Symphony concert at Music Hall was exceptional: guest artist Jeremy Denk, who turned in an exceptional performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major; the program, led by the exceptional Robert Spano, including a rare performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “London Symphony” (No. 2); and an exceptional audience of plus-or-minus 200 who braved the impending snowstorm to be there.

Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony, opened the concert with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Scored for string orchestra divided into two unequal parts, the well-loved work – based on a hymn tune by English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis – was fully at home on the Music Hall stage.

There was ample space to distance the two groups from each other, as the composer indicated. The smaller ensemble – nine players comprising one desk from each section – was seated in the back, on the right side of the stage behind the proscenium arch, with the main orchestra in the front. Taken together, it created wonderful echo effects and interweaving of lines. Affecting solos were performed by concertmaster Timothy Lees, principal second violinist Gabriel Pegis, principal violist Christian Colberg and principal cellist Ilya Finkelshteyn.

Denk gave brilliant voice to Mozart’s comparatively neglected Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major (K.503). His fingers moved swift as lightning in the outer movements, and he filled Mozart’s melodic moments with abundant charm. The first movement cadenza, by Denk himself, was amazing for its agility, and the serene Adagio was meltingly beautiful in his hands. A particularly welcome aspect of the performance was the close working relationship between Denk and the CSO led by Spano. Every aspect of the music was perfectly aligned, from the solos within the orchestra which complemented Denk and vice versa, to overall ensemble unity.

Vaughan Williams “London Symphony” – interestingly, one of its earliest recordings was by the CSO under music director Eugene Goossens in 1941 – provided a color-filled travelogue. Vaughan Williams himself provided a kind of scenario in his notes on the work. After a soft, misty opening, all the bustle of London can be heard in the first movement – listen for the “Westminster Chimes” (Big Ben striking the hour), played by harp and clarinet before the city awakens. There was abundant melody in the Lento second movement, which moved from wistful to passionate and back, ending with a soulful statement by violist Colberg.

The third movement Scherzo (Nocturne) was playful and animated, intended to evoke London at night, Vaughan Williams said. After its quiet end, the music waxed triumphant in the finale. There was a march-like theme that seemed both nostalgic and celebratory before crashing down, to be followed by a repeat of the “Westminster Chimes” on harp. The symphony’s extraordinary epilogue conjures a journey down the Thames toward the open sea (Vaughan Williams’ notes again), with the history of London – and of England – passing by. Spano and the CSO gave it a tender reading, with a big swell (crescendo followed by decrescendo) just before the end.