Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra deliver an imposing Mahler 5

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 26, 2019

Neuwirth: Masaot/Clocks Without Hands
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

A Mahler symphony is, virtually by definition, an evening’s worth of music in its own right. While including another work on the same program can feel all but gratuitous, a thoughtful choice can offer illuminating possibilities. This was the case Thursday night, with Welser-Möst pairing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with a work by Austrian compatriot Olga Neuwirth. Welser-Möst has a keen ear for identifying compositional talent from his home country by names otherwise little known this side of the Atlantic. Neuwirth proved to be another such discovery, a composer The Cleveland Orchestra has touched just once before in a 2004 performance of locus…doublure…solus, also under Welser-Möst’s direction.

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Nathaniel Silberschlag, Franz Welser-Möst, and The Cleveland Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The intriguingly titled Masaot/Clocks Without Hands was originally commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic for the 2011 centenary of Mahler’s death. Saddled with other projects, Neuwirth delayed composition until 2013-14, and noted that the primary inspiration came from a dream about a grandfather she never met. Nonetheless, the spirit of Mahler runs through the work abundantly. The first part of the title comes from the Hebrew work for “journey”; Neuwirth further depicted a central image of a river that connects disparate groups of people on its long journey to the sea. In that regard, I was reminded of Stromab by Johannes Maria Staud – another work by a contemporary Austrian depicting a river which Welser-Möst fittingly paired with a Mahler symphony two seasons ago.

The work began barely audibly, almost unrecognizable as acoustic sound, but soon erupted into cacophony. Stark contrasts and sharp juxtapositions dominated the bulk of the texture, certainly bringing to mind Mahler’s eclecticism. There was colorfully prominent writing for the celesta, and other passages vaguely brought to mind Jewish folk music, appropriate given the Hebrew title. The woodblock served as a ticking clock – sometimes the only instrument playing – yet by the work’s end, high in the stratosphere, any semblance of time had all but dissolved, hence the titular “clocks without hands.” As a sidenote, the orchestra is bringing the program to Carnegie Hall next week, but replacing the Neuwirth with Widmann’s Trauermarsch – another choice pairing, with the piece directly inspired by the namesake opening movement of Mahler’s Fifth.

The bold, declamatory trumpet of Michael Sachs made for an imposing beginning to the Mahler, even as the music morphed into a doleful lament in the strings. The glacial dirge crested to powerful climaxes, but ultimately withered away at movement’s end. A motoric intensity marked the ensuing Stürmisch bewegt, filled with biting ironies. The sun was nonetheless eventually allowed to shine through, and quite brilliantly in a powerful chorale, but only for a fleeing moment as darkness ultimately prevailed. A massive scherzo serves as the symphony’s centerpiece; some commenters have likened it to a horn concerto given its extended solos for that instrument. This was taken quite literally with newly appointed principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlag standing front and center – a supreme test of his mettle, and quite an initiation to this orchestra. His gleaming tone surmounted the challenges presented, and I look forward to hearing more from him.

A scherzo to end all scherzos, the movement is something of hybrid between the vigor of Beethoven’s and the tragedy of Chopin’s, offering some lighter contrast to the rest of the work but not without eschewing its monumentalism. Shrill clarinets added splashes of color, and the wistful pizzicato strings were particularly lovely. The Adagietto unfurled as a divine love song, strikingly scored for strings and harp alone. Welser-Möst’s tempo choice was prime, sumptuous but not indulgent. Matters grew rapturously passionate before quietly fading. A sunny horn call marked the closing Rondo-Finale, quite a shift in texture and character. This was hardly a straightforward rondo, not in the least for the contrapuntal intricacies, performed with crystalline clarity. The chorale theme first introduced in the second movement returned, as if being reunited with an old friend. This time, however, it flourished unencumbered for an unambiguously glorious ending.

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