Sublime Beethoven and primal Stravinsky from Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 28, 2017

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 (transc. for string orchestra by Welser-Möst)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Wagner: Good Friday Spell, from Parsifal

After last weekend’s stellar revival performances of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, this week the Cleveland Orchestra turned attention toward purely orchestral music in scores of Beethoven and Stravinsky – a work from late in the career of the former and early in that of the latter, both uniquely revolutionary and iconoclastic. A crown jewel of this season’s offerings is the upcoming cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor served as a generous prelude, presented in a lush transcription for string orchestra by Welser-Möst himself. During the preconcert conservation with him and executive director André Gremillet, the conductor noted that Beethoven’s ethos often resonates with the values on which the United States was founded, and with regards to the late quartets, that they are “half-symphonic”, thus making the expansion to a larger ensemble a logical realization of the composer’s vision.

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst’s transcription was fastidiously faithful to Beethoven’s original, with the thoughtful addition of the basses adding weight where appropriate in doubling the cello line an octave below, and imposingly aligned in the back row – a positioning preferred by the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble with which Welser-Möst is intimately familiar. The work’s nebulous, enigmatic opening gave way in due course to the heft of the movement proper, and for one accustomed to hearing it as a quartet, the sight and sound of so many players in precise unison was really quite astounding. The scherzo had the charm of a minuet, contrasted by a more rustic trio, its halcyon bliss interrupted by stormier interludes, bringing to mind the mercurial Schubert.

The heart of the quartet is surely the central and quite extensive “Heiliger Dankgesang”; its unassuming beginnings in the Lydian mode grew to a heartwrenchingly beautiful resound. A sprightly foil was to be found in the brief Alla marcia, effectively a bridge to the finale, with a solo passage at the end given to concertmaster William Preucil as a quasi-cadenza. The last movement was overflowing with nervous energy and angst, an affront to the string quartet’s classical origins and indeed an augur of Romanticism.

In the aforementioned preconcert talk, Welser-Möst touched upon his keenness to include watershed works in the orchestra’s centennial season, and The Rite of Spring certainly fits the bill (and the conductor noted that upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are in that pantheon as well). The impossibly high passage in the solo bassoon unleashed a performance of unrelenting virtuosity, from its cataclysmic, primal climaxes, to the strained moments of a world of sacrificial desolation, the latter particularly notable at the beginning of Part II. It was abundantly clear how deeply ingrained this music is in the orchestra’s DNA, having championed it for decades (think of their landmark 1969 recording with Boulez), yet I was struck by how Welser-Möst opted for crisp articulation and dry textures; while it boasted razor-sharp clarity, it lingered a step below the red-hot intensity other conductors might champion.

Nonetheless, the ovations that followed were richly deserved, and the audience was treated to a rarity: an encore on home turf. Welser-Möst introduced it as a “beautiful piece for a beautiful audience”, otherwise known as the “Good Friday Spell” from Wagner’s divine final opera, Parsifal. Newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf had a shining moment in the spotlight – a sign of good things to come – and after the ferocity of the Stravinsky, the encore allowed the evening to conclude in peaceful radiance.

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Andsnes and Hamelin dazzling in two piano recital

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
April 30, 2017

Mozart: Larghetto and Allegro in E-flat Major for Two Pianos
Stravinsky: Concerto for Two Pianos
Debussy: En blanc et noir
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Stravinsky: Madrid for Two Pianos from Four Studies for Orchestra (transc. Soulima Stravinsky)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)
Stravinsky: Tango for Two Pianos (transc. Babin)

It is a rare opportunity indeed to see not one, but two of the world’s leading concert pianists on stage together.  This was fortunately the case Sunday afternoon, when Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes stopped at Symphony Center as part of a 13-city tour of a bracing program that explored music for two pianos.  Their partnership goes back a decade when they performed the two piano version of The Rite of Spring at the Risør Chamber Music Festival, where Andsnes served as artistic director.  Not three weeks prior to the Chicago performance, the pair finally recorded the piece for Hyperion along with additional works of Stravinsky for the same medium also featured in the recital, and one is grateful this inspired collaboration has been preserved on disc given the pair’s absolutely electric chemistry.

Andsnes and Hamelin presenting the same program at Carnegie Hall, two days prior to their Symphony Center appearance, photo credit Chris Lee
The program opened unassumingly with Mozart’s Larghetto and Allegro in E flat major, with Andsnes taking the primo part in the whole of the first half.  The Larghetto was graceful but not without shades of melancholy, as in the best of the Mozart’s slow movements.  Cast in sonata form, the Allegro remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, and was presented in a completed version by Paul Badura-Skoda.  The sprightly main theme evidenced the duo’s rapport from the start, in what was an energetic warmup for all that was to follow.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Pianos is a substantial if neglected work from his neoclassical period, written for him and his son Soulima to play together, and one couldn’t have asked for better advocates in Andsnes and Hamelin.  The first movement was of bold, sweeping gestures, delivered with a knife-edged acerbity.  The delicate ornamentation in the ensuing “Notturno” gave it a mysterious charm, while contrasting sections were more march-like.  Spiky dissonances characterized much of the “Quattro variazioni”, while the finale opened with a brief but declamatory prelude to set up an intricate fugue.  The theme of the preceding variations was not heard until it was presented as the subject of the fugue – the composer had originally intended for the last two movements to be in reverse, but settled on the present ordering to give the work a more forceful ending.  And a forceful ending it certainly had!

Written in 1915, Debussy’s En blanc et noir is very much a product of the First World War.  The angular themes of the opening movement made for a striking visual effect with Andsnes and Hamelin perfectly in sync as a mirror image of each other.  The somberness of wartime was particularly apparent in the central movement, which made dissonant allusions to the Lutheran chorale “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” to depict the German enemy.  The final movement – which, perhaps significantly, was dedicated to Stravinsky – was fleet and mercurial, a stark departure in its apparent playfulness.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been heard on the same stage innumerable times from the Chicago Symphony, but hearing it on two pianos was a refreshing and altogether different experience.  It was in this version that the seminal work was first heard – an early performance involved the composer with Debussy: what a sight that must have been.  The work is actually carefully written such that it can be performed on one piano, four hands, but the decision to split it across two pianos was a wise one, not just for obvious logistical concerns, but the resonance of two instruments along with two separate sets of pedals allowed for a much greater range of orchestral effect.

Hamelin commanded the primo from here to the end of the program, opening with the famous bassoon line.  In spite of Hamelin’s attention to nuance, what’s striking in the bassoon sounded admittedly pedestrian on the piano.  This was quickly allayed, however, as “The Augers of Spring” built to electrifying orchestral sonority and power.  Despite the orchestral score not calling for piano (as Petrushka does, and quite prominently), the work sounded very natural pianistically.  The memorable performance was by and large a steel-fingered assault with hurricane-like intensity, continuing unmitigated through the final, crashing flourish.

A rousing, well-deserved ovation brought the pair back for three encores, all by Stravinsky.  “Madrid” appropriately had an irresistible Spanish tinge, with a hint of the jota.  The “Circus Polka” (“we’ve prepared all these lovely things for you”, noted Hamelin in his introduction to the delight of the audience) was Stravinsky at his wittiest, replete with bitonalities (and perhaps an inspiration for Hamelin’s own “Circus Galop”).  Lastly, the “Tango” was sultry, yet not without the composer’s unmistakable stamp.  Thanks are due to both for being on hand for an engaging Q&A session following the concert, and their chemistry there was just as palpable as it was on stage.

Hamelin Andsnes
Leif Ove Andsnes, James Fahey (Director of Programming, Symphony Center Presents), and Marc-André Hamelin during the post-concert Q&A

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra vivdly trace Stravinsky’s musical development

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Seraphic Fire
Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director
Margot Rood, soprano
Margaret Lias, mezzo-soprano
Steven Soph, tenor
Brian Giebler, tenor
James K. Bass, bass
Charles Wesley Evans, bass

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Robert Porco, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 18, 2017

Stravinsky: Feu d’artifice, Op. 4
Stravinsky: Apollo (1947 version)
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version)
Stravinsky: Threni

An all-Stravinsky program that doesn’t include a note of The Firebird¸ Petrushka, or The Rite of Spring – impossible you say?  Not for Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra who presented a thoughtful survey of Stravinsky’s output while managing to skirt the well-worn blockbusters.  Each of Stravinsky’s major stylistic periods were represented, and each work on the program was markedly different from the others, a testament to the composer’s remarkable versatility.  A video of Welser-Möst speaking about the program can be viewed here:

Feu d’artifice, dating from 1908, comes from Stravinsky’s so-called Russian period that would eventually produce his watershed ballet scores for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  The brief but brilliant work is certainly the vision of a youthful firebrand, scored for large orchestra with some particularly striking writing for the celesta.  While there was a sensuous contrasting theme, matters were largely big-boned and extrovert in this last vestige of Russian Romanticism.

Originally composed 1927-28, the ballet score Apollo (variously known by its French title Apollon musagète) was presented in its 1947 revision.  Conceived for strings alone, Apollo is a major product of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, both in terms of its language, elegant in its clarity and restraint, and its classical inspiration.  The untroubled “Prologue” showcased the beauty of the Cleveland strings, and the ensuing “Variation d’Apollon” featured graceful solo playing from concertmaster William Preucil.  A “Pas d’action” was characterized by long melodies well-suited to the strings which set up a series of variations depicting three of the Muses.  The “Pas de deux” was delicate and given with an ineffable charm, while the “Coda” offered contrast in its jaunty syncopations.  Matters were left in serenity by means of the concluding “Apothéose”, music of haunting stasis.

Apollo was suitably complemented by the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, also stemming from the neoclassical period, but earlier enough to offer some stylistic variety.  Dating from 1919-20, like the preceding, it was performed in its revised version (coincidentally, from 1947 as well, also the year that the ever-fastidious composer revised Petrushka).  The titular wind instruments were not restricted to just the woodwind family, but the broader category of aerophones; hence, the brass were included as well.  “Symphonies”, in its intentional plurality, invoked the term’s Greek origins (literally, “sounding together”), and in the work Stravinsky accordingly was keen to explore various combinations of instrumentation.

Opening with striking, piquant harmonies, the work mercilessly jettisoned sentimentality, demanding such razor-sharp precision that its tempo changes were in a carefully proportioned 1:1.5:2 ratio.  Under Welser-Möst’s taut direction, the desired effect was expertly achieved.  A rhythmically-driven section recalled perhaps the primacy of rhythm in The Rite of Spring, and in spite of its apparent callousness, the work closed in a poignant chorale, meant as a tombeau for the recently deceased Debussy.

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Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, and Seraphic Fire in Stravinsky’s Threni
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The evening’s most intriguing discovery was the final work, the rarely performed Threni, in its belated Cleveland premiere.  Completed in 1958, it was the composer’s first completely serial foray, scored for full orchestra, chorus, and six vocal soloists.  This weekend’s sextet of soloists were from the acclaimed South Florida based choral group Seraphic Fire.  Subtitled “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, the 35-minute work sets text from the Old Testament in Vulgate Latin, punctuated by the chorus exclaiming a letter from the Hebrew alphabet which served as veritable signposts in this demanding score.  Also useful in such unfamiliar territory were the detailed and informative remarks Welser-Möst presented prior to commencing.

The religious discipline was conveyed in the work’s austerity; despite being cast for large orchestra, the textures were dominated by sparse, chamber-like combinations.  A brief introduction was given with declamatory seriousness by Margot Rood and Margaret Lias, soprano and mezzo-soprano respectively.  The first section of the work proper (“De Elegia Prima”) was marked by very fine playing from Michael Sachs on the bugle (flugelhorn), often in dialogue with tenor Brian Giebler, and the chorus commanded a wide dynamic range, from monastic whispers to cataclysmic climaxes.  “De Elegia Tertia” featured striking contributions from the booming bass of the aptly named James K. Bass, his delivery suggesting that of a monk.  Stravinsky was almost certainly influenced by Gesualdo; the sophisticated pointillist counterpoint of a Renaissance motet was cleanly negotiated by all, and the closing “De Elegia Quinta” brought forth a conclusion of solemn resolution.

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Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus, Franz Welser-Möst, and Seraphic Fire in Stravinsky’s Threni
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra