REVIEW: Cleveland Serves Viennese Confections at Carnegie Hall
Above: Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Photo © 2019 Chris Lee.
October 4, 2019
By Brian Taylor
Carnegie Hall’s 2019-2020 season opened with the first of two appearances by The Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst. The orchestra rides on the coattails of a legacy solidified under the mid-century tutelage of George Szell on now classic recordings, and kept afloat in recent years with strong reception on tour internationally, especially in Europe.
Historically lumped in as one of “The Big Five” (a passé list, since any current consideration of America’s greatest orchestras would certainly include L.A. and San Francisco), The Cleveland Orchestra has recently extended their maestro’s contract through 2027, a tenure to exceed Szell’s in length. The decision to re-up with Welser-Möst seems like a standpat move on the part of the valuable Cleveland institution.
This mostly Viennese menu seemed to emphasize the orchestra’s reputation as America’s most “European” orchestra. But, it missed an opportunity for what Time Magazine once hailed as the “best band in the land” to convey its relevance in the current cultural landscape.
The ink of Otto Nicolai’s opera “The Merry Wives of Windsor” barely dried before his premature death in 1849, but the effervescent Overture is a chestnut that has endured. Festive enough to open Carnegie Hall’s season, and delicate and bubbly enough to require just the right touch, Welser-Möst led a featherlight, gossamer account. Immediately, Cleveland’s attributes sparkle. Delicately sculpted dynamics, elegantly drawn contours. A dusty nineteenth-century painting brought gauzily to life.
Anne-Sophie Mutter joined for the middle portion of the program nodding to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, as soloist in the Romance for Violin and Orchestra in G Major, op. 40. The orchestra displayed fine lines and tapered edges. Apollonian trimmings, set in stone. Mutter, never one to phone it in, seemed more invested in this seemingly innocuous ditty than her accompanist. Defying a stodgy reading in the orchestra, her mellifluous tone and varied color palette shined through, and her energy remained unencumbered.
Cellist Lynn Harrell, and pianist Yefim Bronfman joined Mutter — getting the band back together, the three having performed as a trio before — for a luxury-cast reading of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56. Composed alongside the much more celebrated “Eroica” symphony, and the “Appassionata” piano sonata, this work for violin, cello, piano, and orchestra can be glibly dismissed as second-tier Beethoven.
The piece seems to emerge from a place of contentment and fulfillment. Beethoven solved the compositional problem of creating a concerto for three equal soloists and orchestra elegantly. They take turns at bat, in solos, in twos and threes, always in agreement. The first movement feels workaday; an overly generous development feels too big for its britches. Stoic Bronfman — each scale a string of pearls that melts into his colleagues’, his long trills made of high wire tension — keeps the mountainous first movement in the air.
But the reflective Largo — an extended arioso cello solo played sublimely by Harrell, soon topped by creamy woodwinds — is a fresh breeze. Balance is achieved when the slow movement is over almost before it begins, and the Rondo alla Pollaca slips in. Mutter’s electric marcato bowing drove the finale to a rousing close.
The orchestra itself stepped into the spotlight in Robert Mandell’s 1990 Der Rosenkavalier Concert Suite. A delightful twenty-minute trek through Richard Strauss’s rapturous romantic comedy from 1910, the suite makes a meal out of many of the score’s sumptuous waltzes.
Welser-Möst shapes the long-spun phrases of Der Rosenkavalier with deep feeling, as well as a keen eye on the road ahead. Few orchestras maintain such careful control over dynamics, the lid carefully held down on the teapot. But, the rising steam never sits stagnant; contrapuntal phrases ebb and flow, always moving in one direction or the next.
The woodwind section, especially, is drilled in precision. Their soloistic timbres are focused and pure; they do not seem encouraged to imbue the music with individual personality. The brass section plays with warm, gentle sunset hues; where some crunch is desired, they don’t bite too harshly. The horns are spectacularly agile in the stratosphere, and as a choir, have a uniform plushness. The celesta and harp lend nimble touches of magical realism in the delicate leitmotif of the Silver Rose.
The suite luxuriates in Strauss’s rapturous love music, but climaxes in a heart-stopping whirlwind, allowing the brass section to let its feathers fly. A thrilling encore of a Johann Strauss polka was a snappy crackerjack dessert. This tour de force for crash cymbal and snare drum, like everything The Cleveland Orchestra does, was clean as a whistle. Welser-Möst drove it at a fast enough clip that there was the illusion, at least, that the orchestra was playing with abandon.