After a Buttoned-Up Start, Beethoven’s Ninth Reaches Transcendence

22/05/2018

Beethoven: Erin Wall (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Norbert Ernst (tenor), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus/Lisa Wong (director), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 17.5.2018. (MSJ)

Erin Wall, Jennifer Johnston, Norbert Ernst & Dashon Burton (c) Ken Blaze

BeethovenGrosse Fuge, Op.133

Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125

Our world’s a mess right now. Political, military, social, and religious struggles are taking place everywhere, and many of the fights are down and dirty. But whatever other strife must be acknowledged, humanity can also claim moments of selfless nobility, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

It is easy to forget just how radical this piece was, upending not just the general classical roots of Haydn and Mozart, but even the composer’s own previous eight symphonies. The formal framework of the reserved classical tradition was forever broken the moment Beethoven abandoned his abstract path and had a bass vocalist turn to the audience and sing, ‘Oh friends, not these sounds….’. It was a direct appeal from artist to audience, the one thing every teacher in the world tries to teach every student artist never to do. But Beethoven had struggled with the heft of a Titan in the first three movements without breaking through to transcendence, so we allow him this extraordinary liberty. And putting the explicit meaning of words to his music allows Beethoven to vault up to a new plane, peeling away the skin of the world briefly to reveal the Beyond.

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton seemed fully aware of the moment — a radiant smile growing on his face as the instrumental version of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme built up to his entrance — and that smile rarely left his face for the rest of the movement. In a sense, he represented the best side of Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation of this pillar of Western Civilization: serene, poised, certain. Tenor Norbert Ernst was involuntarily thrust into the role of the worst side in his subsequent solo, when the conductor relentlessly bullied the tempo onwards even though Ernst clearly wanted a little more space.

In the end, literally the last few minutes, transcendence was achieved, so there is no denying that Welser-Möst was successful. But his swift, Apollonian traversal refused to open some of the doors of Beethoven’s imagination, including the doors that inspired Bruckner to use this work as a template for his nine symphonies. The first movement, in particular, was buttoned down to the point of suffocation, with the conductor allowing no air between phrases. At the same time, he attenuated many of the attacks, softening Beethoven’s ragged edges and sapping the movement of impact. (In the Finale, isn’t the point of that appeal to the audience that Beethoven tried his hardest with a direct frontal assault of the heavens in the first movement, and it didn’t work?) No real assault was made here, just a brisk hike. Without question, Welser-Möst didn’t feel any rhetoric was needed.

The scherzo was likewise swift, but worked wonderfully, becoming a self-propelled dynamo. Welser-Möst made a subtle interpretive choice at the point where the woodwinds are interrupted by repeated timpani volleys (bars 177-209 in the Dover reprint of the Eulenberg publication of the score). Four times, the timpani intrude, forte; then after a delay of one bar, there is a fifth volley, but it is marked diminuendo in the score. Most conductors have traditionally treated this fifth volley as a subito piano, while Welser-Möst quite justifiably had the player start it forte, then quickly drop the level. The orchestra’s balance and clarity were so fine that there was no need to boost the winds with brass, as was sometimes done in the past. The use of the second repeat allowed this delightful music to continue even longer, making up somewhat for the lightweight first movement.

The easily flowing tempo of the slow movement was ideal, allowing it to sing instead of turning into a suspended-animation trance. But it was in the finale where greatness arose, as Welser-Möst marshalled its disparate parts into an inevitable arc, only marred by that breathless sprint through the tenor’s solo. Ernst ideally needed more room to bring his voice out fully, sounding a little cramped by Welser-Möst’s fleet speeds, while Jennifer Johnston brought warmth to the alto parts. Burton’s outstanding bass-baritone brought the words to life with grand inflection. Soprano Erin Wall also made a strong presence, despite her position at the end of the line of soloists, who were all at the extreme left of the stage (from the audience point of view). This placement was not acoustically ideal, but it did allow the singers to get onstage quickly when the dissonant outburst opened the finale.

Surprisingly for a performance that seemed to aim for inspired literalism, Welser-Möst disregarded the tempo relationship between the final slow passage, marked ‘maestoso’, and the closing prestissimo, to make a theatrically satisfying dash for the finish line. It is curious that he would find it acceptable to underline the drama of the score here but not elsewhere. Regardless, transcendence was achieved, thanks in no small part to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, which had cause for celebration: the naming just days before of Lisa Wong as chorus director, a role that she had been ably filling as interim all this season.

The first half of the concert provided a full string orchestra version of the Grosse Fuge, the monster that Beethoven originally wrote for the finale of his String Quartet No.13. Gloriously strange, it sprawls for over twenty minutes, though Welser-Möst characteristically kept it sleek and forward-moving. Others have sought and found more extremes here, something that this conductor does not tend to allow in his restrained approach to Beethoven. The Cleveland strings were vigorous yet poised throughout.

The concert was the finale of a Beethoven cycle billed as ‘The Prometheus Project’, executed with extensive educational outreach and publicity, and the cycle will subsequently be heard in Vienna and Tokyo.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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