Buttoned-Down Beethoven, Shattering Shostakovich

United StatesUnited States Beethoven and Shostakovich: Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 24.10.2013 (MSJ)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55, “Eroica”
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 in B minor


The Cleveland Orchestra kicked off an intriguing mini-festival Thursday evening with two strongly political symphonies—one overt, one covert. Interestingly, the more ambiguous statements of Shostakovich drew far more passion from the conductor than the directness of Beethoven. The comparison/contrast of the two composers remains, however, a superb idea—as is the mini-festival with three different programs in as many days. It will be fascinating to see how the concept plays out over the weekend.

Welser-Möst preceded the concert with a live interview with the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, Mark Williams, conducted in Reinberger Chamber Hall, a small but lovely recital space in the Severance Hall basement. While plunging into the seriousness of the festival theme—describing Shostakovich’s music as coming as if from behind prison bars—Welser-Möst was also charming and irreverent, attributing the German Beethoven’s sense of humor to years of living in Vienna, and describing the last two movements of the Shostakovich Sixth as the composer “giving the middle finger” to the communist authorities who ruled Russia at the time.

In the second half of the concert, the Shostakovich delivered all of that attitude and then some. Clearly schooled (as Welser-Möst himself acknowledged in the interview) in Evgeny Mravinsky’s tense and ferocious approach to the composer, the performance was shattering. The symphony may only be a half-hour long, but it felt epic. At its core, the vast opening slow movement teetered on the brink of darkness, long-held trills and despondent melodic fragments played with an intensity that was chilling. The following fast and delirious movements were driven to the brink, players almost coming out of their chairs in the final mad, sarcastic dash to the end. Simply put, it was masterful, both in playing and conducting, and one of the best performances I have ever heard in Severance Hall.

I just wish that some of the attitude had been permitted in the first half, a rather over-groomed and under-characterized Beethoven Eroica. Welser-Möst’s Beethoven is always very sleek and buttoned-down, seemingly his own esthetic take on the traditionally laid-back Viennese approach to this composer. It is as if the conductor has taken that reined-in, rounded-off approach, and then sped it up to reflect modern theories about the speeds of Beethoven’s symphonies. Sometimes, as in his recording of the Ninth, the tweaking of small details and large-scale gloss can build up a stirring momentum. Here, it did not. Welser-Möst seemed to be working hard on the podium, shaking his hands dramatically at times, yet all but one of the music’s punches were pulled: He let the peak of the funeral march build up to a full head of steam, briefly enlivening a distracted performance. That makes some sense dramatically, but suppressing the scale of the work’s other mountains turned them into molehills. The last movement also seemed to come to life more than the earlier ones had, perhaps because it was the one place where, instead of being overtly literal to the score, Welser-Möst actually violated it, launching into the finale without pause. Whatever the case, it was a welcome rush of adrenaline. For too much of the performance, this Eroica sounded more like the conductor’s description of the Shostakovich as “music imprisoned behind bars.” Here, it was imprisoned behind overly regular, literal bar lines—not at all like the fiercely expressive and seething Shostakovich that came later.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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