Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season closes in the magnificence of Beethoven’s Ninth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Erin Wall, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
Norbert Ernst, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 17, 2018

Beethoven: Große Fuge, Op. 133 (version for string orchestra)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Choral

Note: for comments on the May 10 performance, inclusive of Symphony Nos. 1 & 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, please see here. For the performances from May 11-13 of Symphony Nos. 2 and 4-8 along with the Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore overtures, please see here.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s watershed centennial season, as well as the ambitious Prometheus Project has reached a glorious conclusion with a pair of Beethoven’s monumental masterpieces. While the biggest draw was certainly the exultant Ninth Symphony, the inclusion of the Große Fuge made the final entry in the series much more than a traversal of that well-known symphony, but a probing survey of the apex of Beethoven’s late style. Originally the concluding movement of the Op. 130 string quartet, the daunting Große Fuge functioned remarkably well independently; presented in transcription for string orchestra, it has appeared with frequency on a Welser-Möst program in spite of (or perhaps because of) its rigor.

Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven
Welser-Möst conducting the Große Fuge, all photos credit Ken Blaze, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The string quartet’s orchestral potential was in full bloom here, immediately apparent from richness of the strings in the jarring opening and spiky dissonances. Calmer interludes only occasionally mitigated the bracing severity of the work, and it was quite a sight to so many bows in perfect synchronization, even in the most dizzyingly complex passages wherein Beethoven fully realized his contrapuntal potential hinted at in the Ninth Symphony.

That symphony, of unprecedented length during its time, generously filled the balance of the lavish program. Opening with protean, elemental germs of themes, it explored the most fundamental of intervals before coalescing into a rigorous sonata allegro, given with the precision and drive of a well-oiled machine. The scherzo of the Ninth is no lightweight trifle, but a creation just as weighty as the opening movement which the orchestra played with a relentless vigor, at times proceeding with a march-like swagger, elsewhere, as if in ghostly imitation of itself. Rustic warmth from the horns and the songfulness of the strings made for a trio that occupied a world apart. A choir of winds introduced the slow movement, giving way to a theme in the strings of absolute serenity, a moment where such a stormy figure as Beethoven was truly at peace with the world – in line with the love transcendent expressed unambiguously through Schiller’s text in the finale.

Even after two centuries, the vast closing movement stands in a class of its own in its ingenious melding of orchestra, choir, and soloists, as well the way it manages to encapsulate the entire symphony as a unified whole. A striking bitonality functioned as a call to arms, the climax of the tension between D minor and B flat major established early on. The main theme of each preceding movement was presented sequentially, a reminiscence as refracted through a newfound vantage point and punctuated by instrumental recitatives. The “Ode to Joy” first surfaced in the low strings, seemingly innocuous but blossoming to the full orchestra in due course.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton had a commanding recitative in the work’s first vocal appearance, delivering text written by the composer himself as a prologue to Schiller’s poem. There was a satisfying sense of coming full circle in engaging Burton for the season finale as he had last appeared on this stage during the performance of The Cunning Little Vixen with which this season began. The quartet of vocal soloists was remarkably well-balanced and of a natural chemistry; tenor Norbert Ernst had a notable moment during the movement’s “Turkish” episode while Erin Wall and Jennifer Johnston filled out the upper registers. Most impressive, however, was the stunning power of the chorus, particularly in the dazzling fugato, expertly prepared under the direction of Lisa Wong (who was officially promoted to chorus director just the day before). In taut cohesion with their orchestral counterparts, they led the symphony to a close of magnificent splendor, a memorable end to a memorable season.

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