From Scandinavia to Italy, Cleveland Orchestra closes season in colorful travelogue

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Simon Keenlyside, baritone
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 23, 2019

Grieg: Morning Mood, The Death of Åse, and At the Wedding from Peer Gynt, Op. 23
Sibelius: Kaiutar, No. 4 from Six Songs, Op. 72
Sibelius: Illale, No. 6 from Seven Songs, Op. 17
Sibelius: Aus banger Brust, No. 4 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Svarta rosor, No. 1 from Six Songs, Op. 36
Sibelius: Kom nu hit, död!, No. 1 from Two Songs for Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, Op. 60
Sibelius: Im Feld ein Mädchen singt, No. 3 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Die stille Stadt, No. 5 from Six Songs, Op. 50
Sibelius: Var det en dröm?, No. 4 from Five Songs, Op. 37
Strauss: Aus Italien, Op. 16

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra closed the 2018-19 season in an alluring program, with all selections stemming from the late 19th-century (and in to the early 20th), connected by Romantic fascinations from awe-inspiring destinations to drama and poetry. Beginning the evening were selections from Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt. Welser-Möst culled his own suite of three excerpts rather than opting for either of the two suites the composer later produced. The selections were performed in reverse order of appearance in the source material, opening with the familiar Morning Mood (which serves as the prelude to Act 4). Silvery flutes beckoned the morning, with the songful theme passed around the woodwinds before appearing in the strings. Welser-Möst’s brisk tempo ensured matters were never sentimentalized. Lush and mournful strings made The Death of Åse the emotional crux, easily a precursor to Barber’s Adagio. At the Wedding (which opens the complete work) was given with vigor and joyous abandon. A more languorous theme was very finely played in turn by the principal winds while Wesley Collins’ offstage viola radiated folksy charm.

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Simon Keenlyside and Franz Welser-Möst, photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

On the heels of his lieder recital a few days prior, Simon Keenlyside returned for the evening’s centerpiece and highpoint – a helping of eight of the seldom-performed songs of Sibelius. The songs at hand were variously in Finnish, Swedish, or German, and in some cases orchestrated by Sibelius himself, others by contemporaries. Keenlyside brought out the lyrical qualities of the Swedish language in Kaiutar, with an orchestration that encouraged its fantastical, fairy-tale atmosphere. Crepuscular strings made Illale a true gem, and the next selection turned to German in a setting of Richard Dehmel’s Aus banger Brust. Dehmel’s poetry served as text for the likes of Strauss and Schoenberg, and Sibelius proved no less adept with the work’s acerbic dissonances and moving solo passages from concertmaster Peter Otto in faithful service of the text. Svarta rosor, a comparatively better-known quantity, was of robust lyricism and grand emotions, nearly operatic with an unforgiving close to boot.

Unlike the others all originally scored for voice and piano, Kom nu hit, död! came from a set of two Swedish settings of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night for voice and guitar, given a rather gloomy reading at present. The richness of Im Feld ein Mädchen singt could easily have been mistaken for Strauss, while Die stille Stadt – another Dehmel setting – maintained a remarkably surreal atmosphere, enhanced by ethereal sounds from the glockenspiel, harp, and high strings. The last selection, Var det en dröm?, displayed again Keenlyside’s keen ability to seamlessly switch languages, and brought matters to a passionate, satisfying close, feeling almost as if these eight otherwise disparate songs were conceived as a unified cycle.

Strauss’ Aus Italien drew inspiration from an Italian journey undertaken by the composer as an impressionable youth, and became the first entry in his great series of tone poems. It’s an immature work to be sure, yet many Straussian hallmarks are already firmly in place, setting the stage for the musical revolutions that would soon be flowing from his pen. This was certainly apparent in the opening Auf der Campagne which could only have been written by Strauss, with elemental beginnings burgeoning into material larger than life. Brassy passages were of arresting vigor, although otherwise matters in performance weren’t entirely polished, sounding as if some extra rehearsal time was needed – no doubt, I suspect, ironed out by the Saturday performance.

Rather than the single-movement architecture of the successive tone poems, Aus Italien was conceived far less cohesively as four distinct portraits. In Roms Ruinen followed suit, generally lighter fare of Italianate charm interspersed with more solemn moments in awe of the eponymous ruins. Strauss’ idiomatic orchestral effects certainly began to crystallize in Am Strande von Sorrent, a coloristic painting of the sun-drenched coast of Sorrento. The closing Neapolitanisches Volksleben marked the work as a foreigner’s less than reliable view of Italy in that Strauss mistook a popular tune of the day for bone fide Neapolitan folk music (I was somewhat reminded of the All’Italiana movement from the Busoni piano concerto heard earlier this season – though there the composer was no foreigner, it too juxtaposed Italianate folk melodies in the context of an otherwise very Teutonic musical language). In any case, matters were nonetheless of an infectious joie de vivre, banal yet so colorfully orchestrated. The orchestra’s committed playing heightened one’s interest: ultimately the rewards were mixed, though the players on stage made as strong a case as they could in this vintage work displaying the budding composer’s incipient genius.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra in Aus Italien