Ingo Metzmacher, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
October 27, 2018
Webern: Passacaglia, Op. 1
Berg: Violin Concerto
Bach: Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 – Largo
Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5
Vienna at the turn of the 20th-century was the site of seismic changes in culture, with the birth of the modern, wary consciousness brought on by the likes of Freud, Klimt, and Schnitzler – and the revolutions in music were no less consequential. Branded as the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and his disciples – principally Berg and Webern – upended the common practice period harmony that had been foundational to Western music for centuries. The Cleveland Orchestra’s program this week, with guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher at the helm, included a work from each of the triptych of iconoclastic Viennese composers for a noticeably underpopulated but raptly attentive Severance Hall.
Webern’s Passacaglia served as beguiling opener. Dubbed his opus 1, it was certainly not his inaugural work, but the first major composition to result from his studies with Schoenberg. An eight bar bassline opened, suggesting not a link to not just the form’s Baroque forebears, but to the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony (and it should be remembered that Schoenberg, whose radicalism was rooted in a keen sense of history, would later write an essay provocatively titled “Brahms the Progressive”). The orchestra’s gift for razor-sharp clarity and precision paid its dividends amply in this work, encouraged by Metzmacher’s guidance even without a utilizing a baton. Even in this rather academic form, the music was of eerie beauty, building to a supercharged climax only to evaporate at the end.
While the opening and closing selections were from their respective composers’ early years, hanging on to the last embers of tonality, Berg’s Violin Concerto was a work of full maturity and one of the crowning achievements of twelve-tone serialism. Matters began with unassuming arpeggios, first in the harp, then in Christian Tetzlaff’s solo violin – despite its serialist rigor, the work ingeniously never ventured far from an oblique invocation of tonality (and Clevelanders will likely be amused by Robert Conrad’s hilarious twelve-tone “infomercial”, wherein the not-so-ostentatious virtuosity of the Berg concerto is duly lampooned). Tetzlaff’s long-bowed playing emanated a biting lyricism, contrasted by the more jocular interpolation of a Carinthian folk song. The violinist was deftly balanced against the richly colored orchestral tapestry, playing with an exacting intensity.
A ferocious unease began the second movement, later countered by the wistful reminiscence of another tonal source, the Lutheran chorale Es ist genug, almost monastic in presentation – and fitting its elegiac subtitle “to the memory of an angel”, referencing the tragic death of Manon Gropious. In the final moments, the violin solo left the orchestra behind to be among the angels in its haunting close. Tetzlaff offered an encore in the Largo from Bach’s third sonata for unaccompanied violin, touchingly dedicating it to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh in response to the horrific events earlier in the day. A poignant performance of deeply felt beauty, and a much-needed moment of solace.
The remainder of the evening was devoted to Schoenberg’s extensive Pelleas und Mellisande. A far cry from the language with which Schoenberg would make waves, the work is lush and hyper-Romantic (though not quite to the excess of the earlier Gurre-Lieder). A tone poem spanning a continuous arc of over 40 minutes, its rich, pictorial detailing sounded very much akin to the contemporaneous works of Strauss (who convinced Schoenberg to take on Pelleas as a subject matter, concurrent with Debussy’s opera – which TCO performed to acclaim not long ago). As delineated in the program books, the work can also be conceived of as following a four movement symphonic structure, but I wasn’t convinced those demarcations were particularly useful.
Wagnerian leitmotifs depicting the characters were introduced at the onset, uneasily commingling in foretelling an unhappy fate. The music swelled in passionate ebb and flow with top-drawer orchestral playing, though I was especially struck by the lush clarinet solos of Afendi Yusuf. Jestful music depicted the symbolic fountain scene, and functioned as a scherzo of sorts (and somewhat reminiscent of “Klaus-Narr” from the Gurre-Lieder), and there was a fine viola solo from principal Wesley Collins. A love scene followed, surely taking cue from Act II of Tristan – a divine serenity only to be caustically interrupted by Golaud. Mellisande’s death was marked by a funereal downward procession, in what was some of the work’s most affecting music. The epilogue began with a stately lyricism, but ultimately the mysteries propounded the unknowing central to Maeterlinck’s symbolist fantasy – different here than the perfumes of Debussy, but nonetheless shrouded in ambiguity.