Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
May 11, 2018
Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
May 12, 2018
Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62
Beethoven: Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
May 13, 2018
Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, Pastoral
Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a
Note: for comments on the May 10 performance, inclusive of Symphony Nos. 1 & 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, please see here. For the May 17 performance of Symphony No. 9 and the Große Fuge, please see here.
A long weekend, abounding in musical riches, saw the bulk of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Prometheus Project. Matters began Wednesday evening with a fascinating conversation between Franz Welser-Möst and noted Beethoven scholar Mark Evan Bonds, musicology professor at the University of North Carolina, moderated by Case Western’s Francesca Brittan (see below). This duly set the tone for the festival’s rigor, and afforded the opportunity to dive much more in depth than a typical preconcert lecture. Installments of the Beethoven symphony cycle were presented in succession from Thursday through Sunday, each program including a pair of symphonies and an overture, and the magnificent Ninth Symphony is to receive three performances the following weekend.
The declamatory and defiant opening of the Egmont overture began Friday evening’s performance, a performance of tightly-wound nervous intensity, made all the more gripping by its imposing sonata form and a conclusion signaled by the heroic shift to major. Despite being a markedly lighter affair than its immediate predecessor and successor, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat major began with an introduction in the parallel minor, one of the composer’s most pathos-ridden statements. High spirits took command in due course, however, and the Allegro vivace proceeded totally unfettered, replete with delightful downward cascades of bubbling winds. Serene, untroubled strings opened the Adagio, occasionally becoming stormier via interjections from the brass, while the sweet lyricism of Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet served as a highpoint. The vivacious scherzo achieved contrast in the more relaxed trio, invoking the winds as punctuated by string filigree, and the pulsating volleys of the rapid fire finale closed the work in breathless excitement.
The massive sense of scale in the Seventh Symphony was immediately clear from the weight of the extensive introduction, the most of substantial of any of the Beethoven symphonies. Principal flute Joshua Smith introduced the primary theme of the first movement proper, characterized by the swagger of dance rhythms and top-drawer playing from the principal winds. Funereal pulsing in the low strings marked the famous Allegretto, yet Welser-Möst ensured matters never dragged as a dirge, and passages in the major offered a lustrous contrast. In jarring divergence, the scherzo positively bounded from the stage, and the trio began in mellifluous harmony only to become increasingly muscular, while the rambunctious finale was exultant in its exuberance.
Saturday’s program began with the Coriolan overture, a work of fiery Sturm und Drang which the orchestra whipped off with a singular intensity; unlike the Egmont, this did not end in triumph but in quiet pathos. At first glance, the Symphony No. 8 in F major harks back to the lightness of the composer’s two earliest symphonies, but this was done as through the lens of over a decade of unparalleled musical development and discovery. The opening movement was playful but not without an underlying seriousness of ideas, and its boundless energy brought to mind TCO’s performance of the work I caught in Chicago last year. In place of a slow movement, here Beethoven elected for an Allegretto scherzando, evidencing the composer at his most tongue-in-cheek – so far-removed from the stormy (and rather romanticized) persona with which we associate Beethoven. A minuet took the place of the scherzo, which by then (1812), was all but nostalgic. The orchestra gave it a courtly reading in spite of the recurrent bold and brassy interjections, and the trio boasted an almost Romantic lyricism. An affair of stark dynamic contrasts, the finale was given at an unrelenting pace.
Although I found Welser-Möst’s generally brisk tempo choices in these symphonies agreeable, I did feel the first movement of the Fifth was a tad rushed. Still, he did the impossible in managing to breathe fresh life into this hyper-familiar work. Frank Rosenwein’s extended oboe solo in the development was a standout, and the movement’s end saw an exclamation of “bravo” from a zealous audience member – premature, but an accurate assessment nonetheless. Cast in A flat major – a rare key in the Beethoven symphonies – the slow movement was given a divinely beautiful reading, full of much-needed repose and hinting at the work’s ultimately triumphant trajectory. In the scherzo, the four-note rhythmic gesture that bound the symphony together surreptitiously emerged from the shadows, and initiated a massive build-up to the blinding brilliance of the finale, given with the orchestra’s corporate strength. A ghostly return of the third movement’s main theme suggested the road to the C major glory wasn’t one of effortlessness, but the long-winded coda savored and reveled in the hard-earned victory.
Sunday afternoon’s installment was presented in perhaps the reverse order expected, with a later symphony preceding an earlier one and concluding with an overture. It might seem that in the Pastoral symphony Beethoven shed his ideal of absolute music as perfected in the first five symphonies, exchanging abstraction for concrete depictions, but in the program notes, Welser-Möst argued that the symphony is more than a mere portrayal of nature, but rather a representation of the feelings associated with each movement’s poetic title. The opening movement radiated a fittingly pastoral charm, aided and abetted by the gracefulness of the Cleveland strings, and the development added some variety in the movement’s otherwise glacial harmonic pace.
The serene slow movement exuded the untroubled bliss of a natural paradise, noted for the richness of the cello section and concluding with a series of birdcalls, once again evidencing the strength of the principal winds. Movements 3-5 created an ingenious dramatic arc, although Beethoven began with a dance movement, not yet veering far from tradition. The dance was filled with the free abandon of country folk and unbuttoned joie de vivre. A tempest of great ferocity served as the penultimate movement, filled with a Romantic pathos and brooding, while Yusuf’s clarinet broke the storm in a tranquil transition to the conclusion, the most wondrous and majestic music one could ask for.
Martial chords punctuated the introduction of the Second Symphony, leading to a rambunctiousness not without a certain grandiosity that clearly set the stage for the Eroica – already a major leap forward from the First. The sublime slow movement had a calmness that seemed to preview that in the Sixth, while all smiles were to be had in the scherzo (now firmly in place of the minuet) as well as the jocular, spirited finale, shining in the sunniness of its D major tonality. Closing the memorable weekend was the third (later discovered to be, in fact, the second) incarnation of the overture to Leonore. The 15-minute work encapsulated the darkness and drama of the opera, interspersed with expressions of heroism, and guided by a longing for freedom and light – very much in line with the composer’s political leanings – and an offstage brass section showed Beethoven as ever the effective dramatist.