Rare Prokofiev highlights Welser-Möst’s offbeat Cleveland Orchestra program

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 30, 2020

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 111
Bridge: The Sea, H100
Dukas: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Following their annual residency in Miami, The Cleveland Orchestra is back home for a hearty stretch of concerts leading up to another tour this spring that will take them to Europe and the Middle East. Franz Welser-Möst, continuing his often revelatory exploration of Prokofiev, opened the program with the composer’s seldom heard Sixth Symphony. If the Fifth Symphony celebrates the glories and triumphs of World War II, the Sixth takes a much darker approach in its bracing depiction of the war’s tragedies and losses. As Welser-Möst noted in his spoken introduction, here we have the usually complacent Prokofiev living on the “knife’s edge” of what was acceptable artistically to the Soviet authorities – with its ambiguities and underlying tragedy, it draws comparison to the subversive works of Shostakovich.

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Title page of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony

The opening Allegro moderato was thorny and unforgiving, foregoing the familiar cohesion of sonata form for a structure underpinned by garish thematic transitions, through which Welser-Möst guided the orchestra with exacting precision. Stark textures were drawn from the low brass and rather busy piano, and the metallic climaxes depicted in no uncertain terms the true trauma of war. The central Largo served as the emotional crux, with arching strings introducing a pained lyricism. A percussive section, however, ensured this was far from a purely meditative affair, and the celesta added another striking timbre. The motoric finale, patently Prokofiev, delivered rapid fire repeated notes with a Haydnesque wit. An interjection of sparse and forlorn material gave pause before the conclusion – cacophonous, bombastic, and in apparent triumph, albeit only skin-deep.

An even rarer quantity followed after intermission in Frank Bridge’s orchestral suite The Sea. The Cleveland Orchestra gave the US premiere of the work under first music director Nikolai Sokoloff in 1923, and remarkably, hasn’t touched it since. Its four movements depict the titular entity in various guises, and would be a clear inspiration for the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten, Bridge’s one and only composition student. Additionally, Bridge spent much time on the coast at Eastbourne, where Debussy too gleaned inspiration for another indelible musical sea portrait, La mer.

“Seascape” opened in lavish orchestration with a flowing melody in clear evocation of the sea – music of great beauty and appeal. The scherzo-like frothiness of “Sea Foam” depicted the ever-changing surface, while “Moonlight” unfolded as a nocturne with a delicate flute melody in counterpoint with the harp. Thundering timpani and dissonant brass conjured the closing “Storm”, but the sun shone through for a resplendent end – let us hope it is not nearly another century before we hear the work again!

Dukas’ one-hit wonder The Sorcerer’s Apprentice closed the evening in exciting fashion. Quiet mystery opened, setting the stage for the indestructible march theme, giving the bassoon and contrabassoon a rare moment in the spotlight. The orchestra amassed to vigor in bringing Goethe’s fantastical poem to life in musical terms, only to dissipate in a closing gesture as blistering as it was sudden.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra deliver an imposing Mahler 5

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 26, 2019

Neuwirth: Masaot/Clocks Without Hands
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

A Mahler symphony is, virtually by definition, an evening’s worth of music in its own right. While including another work on the same program can feel all but gratuitous, a thoughtful choice can offer illuminating possibilities. This was the case Thursday night, with Welser-Möst pairing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with a work by Austrian compatriot Olga Neuwirth. Welser-Möst has a keen ear for identifying compositional talent from his home country by names otherwise little known this side of the Atlantic. Neuwirth proved to be another such discovery, a composer The Cleveland Orchestra has touched just once before in a 2004 performance of locus…doublure…solus, also under Welser-Möst’s direction.

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Nathaniel Silberschlag, Franz Welser-Möst, and The Cleveland Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The intriguingly titled Masaot/Clocks Without Hands was originally commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic for the 2011 centenary of Mahler’s death. Saddled with other projects, Neuwirth delayed composition until 2013-14, and noted that the primary inspiration came from a dream about a grandfather she never met. Nonetheless, the spirit of Mahler runs through the work abundantly. The first part of the title comes from the Hebrew work for “journey”; Neuwirth further depicted a central image of a river that connects disparate groups of people on its long journey to the sea. In that regard, I was reminded of Stromab by Johannes Maria Staud – another work by a contemporary Austrian depicting a river which Welser-Möst fittingly paired with a Mahler symphony two seasons ago.

The work began barely audibly, almost unrecognizable as acoustic sound, but soon erupted into cacophony. Stark contrasts and sharp juxtapositions dominated the bulk of the texture, certainly bringing to mind Mahler’s eclecticism. There was colorfully prominent writing for the celesta, and other passages vaguely brought to mind Jewish folk music, appropriate given the Hebrew title. The woodblock served as a ticking clock – sometimes the only instrument playing – yet by the work’s end, high in the stratosphere, any semblance of time had all but dissolved, hence the titular “clocks without hands.” As a sidenote, the orchestra is bringing the program to Carnegie Hall next week, but replacing the Neuwirth with Widmann’s Trauermarsch – another choice pairing, with the piece directly inspired by the namesake opening movement of Mahler’s Fifth.

The bold, declamatory trumpet of Michael Sachs made for an imposing beginning to the Mahler, even as the music morphed into a doleful lament in the strings. The glacial dirge crested to powerful climaxes, but ultimately withered away at movement’s end. A motoric intensity marked the ensuing Stürmisch bewegt, filled with biting ironies. The sun was nonetheless eventually allowed to shine through, and quite brilliantly in a powerful chorale, but only for a fleeing moment as darkness ultimately prevailed. A massive scherzo serves as the symphony’s centerpiece; some commenters have likened it to a horn concerto given its extended solos for that instrument. This was taken quite literally with newly appointed principal horn Nathaniel Silberschlag standing front and center – a supreme test of his mettle, and quite an initiation to this orchestra. His gleaming tone surmounted the challenges presented, and I look forward to hearing more from him.

A scherzo to end all scherzos, the movement is something of hybrid between the vigor of Beethoven’s and the tragedy of Chopin’s, offering some lighter contrast to the rest of the work but not without eschewing its monumentalism. Shrill clarinets added splashes of color, and the wistful pizzicato strings were particularly lovely. The Adagietto unfurled as a divine love song, strikingly scored for strings and harp alone. Welser-Möst’s tempo choice was prime, sumptuous but not indulgent. Matters grew rapturously passionate before quietly fading. A sunny horn call marked the closing Rondo-Finale, quite a shift in texture and character. This was hardly a straightforward rondo, not in the least for the contrapuntal intricacies, performed with crystalline clarity. The chorale theme first introduced in the second movement returned, as if being reunited with an old friend. This time, however, it flourished unencumbered for an unambiguously glorious ending.

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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

US premiere of Deutsch’s Okeanos makes strong impression

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Paul Jacobs, organ
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 14, 2019

Haydn: Symphony No. 34 in D minor, Hob. I:34
Deutsch: Okeanos
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64

Prior to The Cleveland Orchestra’s impending and extensive tour of China, Franz Welser-Möst is back in town for a pair of programs, the first of which was centered on Cleveland’s introduction to the tenth Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, Bernd Richard Deutsch. Also hailing from Welser-Möst’s native Austria, Deutsch is representative of what is sometimes referred to as the Third Viennese School, a loose amalgamation of composers whose music has been championed by the contemporary music ensemble Klangforum Wien.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Paul Jacobs in Okeanos. Photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The work Deutsch made his calling card was Okeanos, a nearly 30-minute canvas for organ and orchestra dating from 2014-15, and inspired by the titular Greek personification of the oceans. Prefacing the performance, Deutsch and organist Paul Jacobs were on hand for a fascinating preconcert discussion (although I did wish that moderator Caroline Oltmanns had been gracious enough to give the two more airtime). Okeanos is conceived in four movements, each representing the fundamental elements, respectively, water, air, earth, and fire. The work began almost indeterminately, with tremolos obscuring fragments of themes, and the organ so wrapped into the fabric of the orchestra as to be hardly discernible. The movement soon grew far more animated, building to a fluid gravitas, with the organ powerfully prominent in music of cosmic visceral impact – yet the movement ended in no more than a whisper.

“Air” opened with rapid fluttering in the organ along with a wind machine used to obvious effect. Colorful glissandi on the organ were imitated by the harp and celesta. “Earth” was a more glacial affair, filled with otherworldly timbres usually emanating from the percussion battery, as vast and diverse as one could imagine. “Fire” was of rapid virtuosity and quite ferocious playing, emphasizing the rhythmic primacy of the percussion. Further striking effects were achieved through muted trombones; at movement’s end the texture dug down into the depths of the organ, ending on a sustained chord at quadruple forte – an imposing effect to be sure. Deutsch noted that the structure of the work was determined by the golden ratio – a thought-provoking compositional approach with antecedents in Debussy and elsewhere, though certainly not apparent on first hearing. As part of his fellowship, Deutsch has been commissioned to write a new work for the orchestra, to be performed at the end of next season (May 2020) – I look forward to music that lies ahead.

The evening began with the first Cleveland Orchestra performances of a lesser-known Haydn symphony, No. 34 in D minor. The first of the composer’s to be cast in the minor, it served as an incubator for the series of Sturm und Drang symphonies that would soon follow. Haydn quite surprisingly begins with the slow movement – what initially sounds like merely an introduction turns out to be a symphonic edifice nearly as long as the remaining movements combined. A lament in the strings was marked by the clarity of the inner voices in this statement of genuine expressive depth. After the weighty beginnings, the minor was all but forgotten and matters proceeded wholly unperturbed. The sudden high spirits of the second movement were further encouraged by the courtly minuet with lovely woodwind triplets during its trio. And as is often the case with Haydn’s whirlwind finales, one only wished it wasn’t so brief.

Tchaikovsky’s evergreen Fifth Symphony completed the program in lush Romanticism. A plaintive presentation of the fate motive in the clarinets opened the work to chilling effect, eventually coalescing as an energetic march, gathering great strength in the face of fate and brimming with endlessly flowing melody. Welser-Möst took matters at a startlingly brisk tempo – while I applaud his resolve to not sentimentalize, I would have preferred the music to breathe a bit more. Low strings of deep emotion marked the slow movement, a backdrop for the sumptuous horn solo, delicately interjected by Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet. While Welser-Möst might not have probed as deep as some, the result was nonetheless long, flowing lines of rapturous beauty. The tragic obsessions of the first two movements were left behind in the lilting Valse, decorated by mercurial strings. The fate motive resurfaced, suddenly benign, setting the stage for the finale wherein matters were miraculously morphed to the triumphant.

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The Cleveland Orchestra performs Okeanos. Note the percussion battery and muted brass.

Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra score another operatic success in Ariadne auf Naxos

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
January 13, 2019

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60

Tamara Wilson, soprano (Ariadne/Diva)
Andreas Schager, tenor (Bacchus/Tenor)
Daniela Fally, soprano (Zerbinetta)
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano (Composer)
Wolfgang Brendel, speaking role (Major-Domo)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann, baritone (Music Master)
Jonas Hacker, tenor (Dance Master)
Julie Mathevet, soprano (Naiad)
Daryl Freedman, mezzo-soprano (Dryad)
Ying Fang, soprano (Echo)
Ludwig Mittelhammer, baritone (Harlequin)
James Kryshak, tenor (Scaramuccio)
Anthony Schneider, bass (Trufffaldino)
Miles Mykkanen, tenor (Brighella)

Frederic Wake-Walker, director
Alexander V. Nichols, lighting, projection, and set design
Dominic Robertson & Lottie Bowater, collage, animation, and video content design
Jason Southgate, costume design
Mallory Pace, hair and makeup design

In what has become an essential part of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall season, music director Franz Welser-Möst led his ensemble in a staged opera production, this season turning attention towards Richard Strauss in Ariadne auf Naxos. A wholly unique work in the operatic canon, Ariadne is preceded by a prologue wherein a cast of characters plan and prepare an evening’s musical program, debating whether it should be serious art or comedic entertainment, and what follows is the resultant product – effectively, an opera with an opera. The new production was designed by Frederic Wake-Walker, who made much of Severance’s small stage and deftly incorporated motifs of the hall into his design.

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The ensemble of Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Welser-Möst eschewed the usual conductor entrance, with the prologue opening practically in medias res with conductor and orchestra in casual dress as perhaps in the middle of a rehearsal: the musicians thus became characters themselves. The instrumental introduction evidenced the finely-tuned Strauss playing of this ensemble. Strauss scored it for the rather modest force of about 35, although owing to the composer’s mastery of orchestration it often sounded as much more. While the scoring was thinner in the winds – particularly given what one might expect for Strauss – it was fleshed out by three keyboard instruments (piano, harmonium, celeste), and the clear textures allowed for the solos of the Cleveland principals to be rendered in sharper focus – notable were passages from the flute, clarinet, oboe, cello, and concertmaster Peter Otto.

As the Major Domo, Wolfgang Brendel was both imposing and avuncular in his spoken role (the character purportedly being tone deaf), explaining to the Composer that the latter’s opera would coincide with a performance by a comedy troupe, setting up the prologue’s central conflict. Dressed in the glam of a rock star, Kate Lindsey brought enormous vigor and defiance to the firebrand Composer, scored for mezzo to portray his youth, which involved an artistic idealism he hardly wanted to yield to comedians. As the Prima Donna (and slated to play title role in the Composer’s opera), soprano Tamara Wilson captured the essence of the stereotypical diva (and incidentally, Wilson is to reprise the role with Welser-Möst at La Scala later this season). When it was announced an inflexibly scheduled fireworks display would necessitate the opera and the comedy to be performed simultaneously, the singers and the comics exchanged ideas in a humorous mashup of the comical and the serious.

After the prologue’s minimalist staging, Severance Hall underwent a miraculous transformation to host the opera proper. The orchestra was lowered down to the pit, and a curtain draped around the stage’s perimeter served as a canvas for a nearly continuous stream of video projection. In adoration of the production’s venue, patterns reflective of the Severance ceiling were displayed on the curtain, and Ariadne’s dress would invoke the same pattern. While I was impressed with the production being truly made for Cleveland, perhaps the sight lines of the hall could have further been considered during design – particularly in the prologue, some of the action was obscured from my vantage point on the side of the balcony.

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Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Following another finely-played orchestral prelude, the celestial voices of the three nymphs were heard from above, reaching out to Wilson now refashioned as Ariadne. In a nod towards (somewhat) contemporaneous comedy, the comedians were costumed as the four Marx Brothers (is there any evidence that Strauss ever saw a Marx Brothers film?!). Additionally, clips from various comedies were projected, including scenes of Charlie Chaplin during the Harlequin’s aria, Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen. Ludwig Mittelhammer gave a deeply lyrical and affecting reading of the Harlequin, and during his excellent pre-concert lecture, Prof. Bryan Gilliam observed that the aria in question bears a more than passing resemblance to the first movement theme from Mozart’s piano sonata K331 – a composer who Strauss profoundly admired.

The second half’s centerpiece, Zerbinetta’s extensive Großmächtige Prinzessin, saw Daniela Fally – donning a flapper dress – shining brilliantly in this coloratura tour de force. The ensemble piece Töne, töne, süße Stimme, given by the nymphs in concert with Ariadne, was of sublime beauty as well as another musical homage – in this case, to Schubert (the Wiegenlied, D498). Tenor Andreas Schager entered as Bacchus, stretching to the extremities of his vocal range with great power but always lyrical first and foremost. A transcendent transformation occurred on stage with the darkened hall becoming filled with light as Ariadne gave thought to life with Bacchus outside her cave on the titular Naxos, perhaps alluding to the quest for enlightenment in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Bacchus and Ariadne closed with a duet of luscious lyricism: in the wake of the earlier debates of high art vs. populism, the sublime firmly had the final word.

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Tamara Wilson (Ariadne) and Andreas Schager (Bacchus) in Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall, with The Cleveland Orchestra led by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

 

Welser-Möst concludes autumn residency with a powerhouse Mahler 2

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

There’s no question about it: The Cleveland Orchestra’s 101st season has gotten off to a stellar start, with the weekend seeing the last of four diverse and weighty programs led by Welser-Möst before he leaves for engagements elsewhere, not to return until January’s performances of Ariadne auf Naxos. The program in question was devoted to Mahler, familiar territory for these forces, namely the imposing and ultimately glorious Second Symphony – a work not performed on this stage since 2007.

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Welser-Möst, Wong, Harvey, and Cooke (l-r) with Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus

A funeral march is integral to virtually all of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Second in fact begins with one – and a formidable one at that. Nervous tremolos opened, leading inexorably down to the grave in this ferocious outpouring, though interspersed with moments of repose in what made for starkly garish contrasts, with the latter particularly encouraged by the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein. Tempos were brisk – perhaps a bit too much so for my taste – but the yield was music of arresting power, never to be sentimentalized. A stirring brass chorale suggested the venerable Dies irae, and the movement concluded in desolation via a final downward gesture, a fate sounding all but inescapable.

But of course Mahler’s arduous journey doesn’t end there, with the following Andante moderato a folksy foil, as if the struggles immediately preceding had been entirely forgotten in this carefree ländler. A much less tightly-wound tempo achieved a simple, rustic peace, with some playful counterpoint between the strings and winds, leading towards a more animated central section. The main theme returned in a gentle pizzicato, unimpeachably good-natured. A thud in the timpani marked the third movement, with sinuous sixteenths testing the dexterity of the orchestra – a challenge easily surmounted, though again I found the tempo choice a tad rushed. This was the first of two nods to Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs, here a purely instrumental expansion of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, and not entirely a blithe affair as matters erupted into a primal scream.

In another moment of extreme contrast, a sudden shift to light and the divine was achieved in “Urlicht” (another Wunderhorn text), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich introspection a voice from another world. The brass chorales were heavenly, and though only a few minutes in duration, this movement was easily the emotional heart of the entire work. The text concludes with longing for “das ewig selig Leben” – in his pre-concert lecture, Rabbi Roger Klein suggested that Mahler knew that “Urlicht” alone was inadequate to achieve these lofty ambitions, hence necessitating the massive finale, a grueling undertaking.

The calm of “Urlicht” was immediately uprooted with fury unrelenting. An offstage brass added a spatial dimension to the score’s rich detailing (some flubbed notes notwithstanding), and the resurrection motif was unassumingly introduced in the trombones and trumpets. Climaxes were of shattering power, although a more intimate moment saw the fluttering flute of Joshua Smith joined by delicate touches of piccolo. The chorus entered as a unified whisper, building to great force in due course. Joélle Harvey offered an angelic soprano, naturally blending with Cooke, and the organ added even more magnificence to work’s stunningly spectacular conclusion, surely representing the pinnacle of human triumph.

Welser-Möst explores Prokofiev symphonies with a Bartók centerpiece

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Severance Hall
September 30, 2018

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, Classical
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44

Franz Welser-Möst has expressed an interest in devoting part of the next few seasons to exploring works – particularly those lesser known – of both Prokofiev and Schubert. The first installment came last weekend, with a program bookended by Prokofiev symphonies. Of Prokofiev’s seven works in the genre, only the First and the Fifth are played with any regularity, the remainder being brushed to the periphery. While the remaining five are admittedly somewhat uneven in quality, an opportunity to discover them – particularly at the level of playing witnessed over the weekend – is emphatically welcomed.

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Yefim Bronfman, photo credit Oded Antman

Familiar territory opened the program, however, with the composer’s First Symphony, the so-called Classical for its patent inspiration to Haydn but as through the wit of a 20th-century modernist. It opened with a burst of energy capped by its classical charm, with transparent textures balancing a classical economy and Prokofiev’s piquant harmonies. The Larghetto was gentle and untroubled, evidencing a side of the composer wholly different than the enfant terrible as he is often characterized. The gavotte glanced back in time even further with its roots in the Baroque; here a stately theme was spiked with sweet dissonances, a creation that must have satisfied the composer as he re-used the material in Romeo and Juliet. Although I did find the flutes to be a bit overzealous, the dynamics in the movement’s conclusion were brought down to a whisper, setting the stage for the high-spirited finale.

The rarely-heard Third Symphony closed the afternoon, with the orchestra blossoming substantially, no longer in classical proportions for this daunting, unwieldy work. Some its material was taken from the composer’s ill-fated opera The Fiery Angel, here completely reimagined as a symphony (the Fourth Symphony was also based on material from a stage work, namely The Prodigal Son). The clangorous opening movement was an affair of overwhelmingly dense texture, in some semblance of sonata form, difficult to follow yet the orchestra had a keen sense of its architecture. Striking orchestrations yielded unforgiving sonorities, and matters closed with an extended passage in the contrabassoon leading down to the grave.

A strained wistfulness opened the Andante, less unrelenting than the previous but still filled with a pervasive unease. There were notable solo contributions from concertmaster Peter Otto and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, and eerie glissandos added to the restlessness. The third movement overflowed with a motoric drive and bizarre effects, not the least of which were the rapid yet quiet glissandos that dotted the score’s dense pages. A more measured B section offered momentary respite, only for matters to end with an eruption in the brass. The finale was shrouded in the darkness of the low brass, merciless in its shrill bombast inexorably leading to a crashing ending.

Situated between the two symphonies was Bartók’s second piano concerto, a formidable work notorious for its technical demands, here conquered by one its greatest champions, Yefim Bronfman (incidentally, the last soloist to perform the work here was Lang Lang who graced the same stage during the previous night’s gala). The opening flourish saw Bronfman in counterpoint with the brass, and the pianist delivered with a kinetic drive, this work ideal for his supersized virtuosity and steel-fingered playing. The movement continued apace with relentlessness but yet a sheer brilliance of sound, and Bronfman was in fine balance with his orchestral colleagues, never at the risk of getting swallowed by their expansiveness.

Plaintive strings – their first appearance – opened the central movement, sounding almost incorporeal after the mechanistic physicality of the preceding. A simple, direct melody in the piano offered utter clarity of tone, while the contrasting Presto was rapid and unsettling. The slow passage returned, filled with spectral trills, evidencing Bartók’s idiosyncratic “night music.” A bass drum initiated the finale, and matters exploded with a nervous energy, dashing any hopes of a peaceful conclusion – and Bronfman’s flurry of double octaves had to be seen to be believed.

Cleveland Orchestra opens season with singular ambition

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 20, 2018

Rathbun: Pantheon
Abrahamsen: Left, alone
Tchaikovsky: Suite from Swan Lake, Op. 20

Encore:
Tchaikovsky: Marche slave, Op. 31

After a momentous centennial season, Franz Welser-Möst and his Cleveland Orchestra are back down to business, opening their second century with a challenging program emblematic of this orchestra’s remarkable ambition. Instead of beginning the season with tried-and-true warhorses as some orchestras might do, the first half was comprised of a world premiere and a US premiere, and even the more populist second half – Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – was a welcome alternative to the composer’s evergreen symphonies.

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Franz Welser-Möst receiving the Distinguished Service Award from Richard K. Smucker, all photos credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The inaugural work of the season came from the orchestra’s own ranks, assistant principal oboe Jeffrey Rathbun, an accomplished composer in his own right with this being the fourth occasion on which TCO has performed a work of his. Rathbun is certainly a man who knows this orchestra well having been a member for 28 years, and the aptly named Pantheon was a lovely tribute to his colleagues. The work began in the rumbling timpani, with fragments quickly coalescing into a vigorous drive. A more relaxed B section followed, generally tonal and quasi-Romantic, as well as being a veritable “concerto for orchestra” featuring solos from nearly every instrument, showcasing the beauty and power of The Cleveland Orchestra. A dulcet passage from concertmaster Peter Otto was a highlight, but unsurprisingly, the most extensive solo went to the oboe – although Rathbun opted to experience the work from the audience, giving the solo to double-reed colleague Frank Rosenwein.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Jeffrey Rathbun

In the spirit of contemporary music, this weekend’s concerts were dedicated to the memory of Oliver Knussen, a major force with deep ties to Cleveland. Matters continued apace with the first American performance of Left, alone (written 2014-15) by leading Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. Abrahamsen is a composer quite familiar to this orchestra; its performances of his song cycle let me tell you were given at both Severance Hall and Carnegie Hall to widespread critical acclaim in 2016. As the title cleverly suggests, Left, alone is a piano concerto for the left hand alone, in the spirit of Ravel’s which was memorably performed last February (perhaps a future season could include a survey of left hand piano concertos?). Making his Cleveland Orchestra debut was the work’s dedicatee, French pianist Alexandre Tharaud.

The notion of a work for the left hand alone is one of deep personal significance to Abrahamsen who himself was born with a palsy that impaired use of his right hand. Left, alone is conceived in two parts, each further divided into three interconnected sections. It opened percussively with the center of gravity in the piano’s bottom register, incessant in its rhythmic complexities. In addition to Tharaud’s solo line, there was scoring for an orchestral piano (two hands), played by Joela Jones in counterpoint with Tharaud to yield an intriguing spatial effect. The following section was markedly slower, almost impressionistic – more suggested than executed – while the movement’s conclusion was of greater motion.

The latter half opened with a very brief statement in the solo piano with a touch of trumpet, nearly suspended in time, while matters became wild and unrelenting in the ensuing section, more than living up to its designation of Prestissimo tempestuoso. The final section was the most extended, first invoking again the suspended atmosphere by way of a repeated gesture. At one point Tharaud was instructed to pluck the piano’s strings, illustrative of the concerto’s diverse palette of timbre. The texture became more animated and virtuosic until its perplexingly abrupt ending, as if being cut off in mid-sentence. A work that surely deserves a second hearing, and one couldn’t imagine a stronger advocate than Tharaud who has certainly earned an invitation back to Severance Hall.

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Franz Welser-Möst and Alexandre Tharaud

Following intermission was the presentation of the Distinguished Service Award which this year went to none other than Welser-Möst. In his heartfelt remarks, the conductor reminded the audience of music’s essential value, deeming it “nutrition for our souls.” A 40-minute suite from Swan Lake concluded, with various selections from the complete ballet culled by Welser-Möst. The overture began with doleful solos from Rosenwein and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, while the waltz demonstrated the composer’s early gift for the dance form which would be used to such great effect in his later symphonies and ballets, its graceful themes burgeoning into a boisterous affair. Scene (No. 10) was marked by a plaintive oboe solo, showing beauty in tragedy. “Dance of the Swans” was appropriately featherlight, while “Odette and the Prince” featured a lively dialogue between the harp, violin, and cello. A series of four national dances followed with an especially ebullient csárdás, and the final scene was given with a searing passion towards its tragic end.

Continuing the celebratory spirit of opening weekend, an encore was presented, namely the same composer’s Marche slave. A sinuous, fluid melody was quintessentially Tchaikovskyian in this energetic workout of a brilliant showpiece.

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Franz Welser-Möst leading The Cleveland Orchestra in Swan Lake

Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season closes in the magnificence of Beethoven’s Ninth

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Erin Wall, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano
Norbert Ernst, tenor
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
May 17, 2018

Beethoven: Große Fuge, Op. 133 (version for string orchestra)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, Choral

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 performances from May 11-13 of Symphony Nos. 2 and 4-8 along with the Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore overtures, please see here.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s watershed centennial season, as well as the ambitious Prometheus Project has reached a glorious conclusion with a pair of Beethoven’s monumental masterpieces. While the biggest draw was certainly the exultant Ninth Symphony, the inclusion of the Große Fuge made the final entry in the series much more than a traversal of that well-known symphony, but a probing survey of the apex of Beethoven’s late style. Originally the concluding movement of the Op. 130 string quartet, the daunting Große Fuge functioned remarkably well independently; presented in transcription for string orchestra, it has appeared with frequency on a Welser-Möst program in spite of (or perhaps because of) its rigor.

Cleveland Orchestra, Beethoven
Welser-Möst conducting the Große Fuge, all photos credit Ken Blaze, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The string quartet’s orchestral potential was in full bloom here, immediately apparent from richness of the strings in the jarring opening and spiky dissonances. Calmer interludes only occasionally mitigated the bracing severity of the work, and it was quite a sight to so many bows in perfect synchronization, even in the most dizzyingly complex passages wherein Beethoven fully realized his contrapuntal potential hinted at in the Ninth Symphony.

That symphony, of unprecedented length during its time, generously filled the balance of the lavish program. Opening with protean, elemental germs of themes, it explored the most fundamental of intervals before coalescing into a rigorous sonata allegro, given with the precision and drive of a well-oiled machine. The scherzo of the Ninth is no lightweight trifle, but a creation just as weighty as the opening movement which the orchestra played with a relentless vigor, at times proceeding with a march-like swagger, elsewhere, as if in ghostly imitation of itself. Rustic warmth from the horns and the songfulness of the strings made for a trio that occupied a world apart. A choir of winds introduced the slow movement, giving way to a theme in the strings of absolute serenity, a moment where such a stormy figure as Beethoven was truly at peace with the world – in line with the love transcendent expressed unambiguously through Schiller’s text in the finale.

Even after two centuries, the vast closing movement stands in a class of its own in its ingenious melding of orchestra, choir, and soloists, as well the way it manages to encapsulate the entire symphony as a unified whole. A striking bitonality functioned as a call to arms, the climax of the tension between D minor and B flat major established early on. The main theme of each preceding movement was presented sequentially, a reminiscence as refracted through a newfound vantage point and punctuated by instrumental recitatives. The “Ode to Joy” first surfaced in the low strings, seemingly innocuous but blossoming to the full orchestra in due course.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton had a commanding recitative in the work’s first vocal appearance, delivering text written by the composer himself as a prologue to Schiller’s poem. There was a satisfying sense of coming full circle in engaging Burton for the season finale as he had last appeared on this stage during the performance of The Cunning Little Vixen with which this season began. The quartet of vocal soloists was remarkably well-balanced and of a natural chemistry; tenor Norbert Ernst had a notable moment during the movement’s “Turkish” episode while Erin Wall and Jennifer Johnston filled out the upper registers. Most impressive, however, was the stunning power of the chorus, particularly in the dazzling fugato, expertly prepared under the direction of Lisa Wong (who was officially promoted to chorus director just the day before). In taut cohesion with their orchestral counterparts, they led the symphony to a close of magnificent splendor, a memorable end to a memorable season.

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Welser-Möst continues to hit high marks in Beethoven symphony cycle

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH

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.