Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra soar to tragic heights in Mahler’s Sixth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2017

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Tragic

The Cleveland Orchestra is pulling all the stops in opening their centennial season, with this week’s attention turned toward a monumental Mahler score in addition to Saturday night’s gala. Before the music began, Thursday’s performance saw the annual presentation of the Distinguished Service Award, this year given to Chair of the Board of Trustees Dennis W. LaBarre. Following that moment of celebration, Welser-Möst and the orchestra embarked on a journey through darkness with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, unique amongst the composer’s symphonic corpus in that it ends in unresolved tragedy.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
The opening movement was taken at a brisk tempo, and one could sense the immediate buildup of potential energy that would power the work’s unrelenting cataclysms. Terse, motivic cells yielded a pulsating march theme, punctuated by the shrillness of the winds. Another gesture was introduced that would recur throughout, namely the major triad collapsing into the minor, prescient of the tragic trajectory. Some contrast was to be had in the lushly flowing “Alma” theme, while the development offered a particularly striking moment with the celesta and offstage cowbells suggesting some distant, hallucinogenic dream of the Austrian countryside. Perhaps Mahler’s most classically-proportioned movement, the recapitulation brought to a triumphant close, though as was later evident, only deceptively so in this hollow victory.

There has long been contention regarding the ordering of the two inner movements. The critical edition places the scherzo ahead of the Andante, while Mahler changed his mind during rehearsals and opted to conduct the Andante first. Welser-Möst honored Mahler’s decision, not just with regards to the Sixth’s chronology, but in terms of tempo as well – as he remarked in the program notes, its 1906 premiere with the composer conducting spanned 77 minutes, and Thursday’s performance clocked in at that on the dot. The Andante is in the distant key of E flat major, a tritone apart from the A minor of the other movements, and indeed, it occupied a peaceful world far removed from the surrounding tumult. One was struck by the genial warmth of the clarinets, and in due course, gleaming solos in the cor anglais and horn.

The march theme from the first movement returned in the scherzo, this time mutated into the grotesque and exhibiting a manic energy. The percussion added a particular grimness, while the pair of trios provided some lighter moments, if only relatively speaking. Afendi Yusuf’s solo clarinet passages were filled with rhythmic swagger though perhaps a notch too loud, and answered by the uneasiness of the col legno strings. Otherworldly sounds in the celesta opened the finale, thus beginning the plunge into infinite darkness. A stentorian brass chorale of enormous power, again embodying the decay from major to minor, initiated the movement’s epic, monumental fight, albeit one that would ultimately end in futility. Moments with the apparent potential of victory were quickly snuffed out by the two crashing hammer blows, the second with even more finitude than the first, signifying the point of no return. Some tender moments in the oboe from Frank Rosenwein suggested the possibility of respite, but overtaken as if with inevitability by the hollow emptiness of the conclusion, an unmitigated tragedy after which Welser-Möst held the audience spellbound in reverential silence.

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Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra – note the hammer in the back row, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
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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

Encore:
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.

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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.

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

Summers@Severance opens with hearty Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 14, 2017

Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

As a respite from the sometimes problematic conditions of al fresco performances, the Cleveland Orchestra offers the opportunity to hear them indoors through the summer at Severance Hall (which, incidentally, was recently featured on CNN as one of the finest music venues in the US) in tandem with their usual Blossom residency.  Matters opened in auspicious form Friday evening, with music director Franz Welser-Möst leading an all-Beethoven program as a preview of sorts for the upcoming season’s Beethoven symphony cycle.

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Summer festivities at Severance Hall, photo credit Roger Mastroianni

The Egmont overture made for a dramatic opening, apparent from the sustained introductory chords which which given with a glowering intensity.  The principal winds were particular standouts when in dialogue with one another, and Welser-Möst had taut control of the work’s sonata form architecture.  A piece of unrelenting Sturm und Drang, it was only occasionally mitigated by brief forays in the major, hardly enough to hint at the work’s jubilant conclusion.

In similar fashion to the preceding, the Symphony No. 1 in C major boasted a deftly-shaped chordal introduction, but otherwise this sprightly early work was worlds apart.  The theme of the movement proper crept in unassumingly, and burst with the self-assurance of the young composer.  A secondary theme was very finely given in the oboe by Frank Rosenwein, and with the Austrian on the podium, the orchestra sounded like a proper Viennese ensemble.  The genteel slow movement oscillated back and forth between playing in unison and various instrumental combinations in counterpoint, while the vigorous abandon of the third movement was a bona fide scherzo in all but name.  The finale opened in a stately manner, echoing the symphony’s beginning, only to proceed in unabated high spirits.

Beethoven’s Fifth, that rather well-known quantity in the parallel minor of the First, rounded off the evening, for which the orchestra swelled to 19th-century proportions.  Welser-Möst’s tempo choice was brisk and exacting, and despite the familiarity of this territory one never felt he was merely coasting on autopilot.  Rosenwein’s solo passage in the development was a striking moment of stasis in a world otherwise defined by searing drama.  There was a wonderful, burnished richness of the strings in the slow movement, and the winds were of note in the variation that perhaps interpolates La Folia.

In the penultimate movement, granite blocks of singularity gave way to delicate string filigree, although a somewhat more conservative tempo choice in the latter perhaps would have yielded clearer articulation.  This led attacca to the brassy exultation of the finale.  Welser-Möst opted for minimal dynamic contrast, which had the interesting (and perhaps intended?) benefit of making the ghostly return of the gesture from the third movement all the more haunting.  That mood of course wasn’t maintained for long in this archetypal journey from darkness to light, and there was no ambiguity that we had firmly arrived at C major in the extensive coda.  This drew a rapturous ovation from the packed house, and if Friday was any indication, next season’s traversal of the nine symphonies promises to be enormously rewarding.

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