Two Composers Shaking Fists at Powers-That-Be

United StatesUnited States Beethoven and Shostakovich: Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Severance Hall, Cleveland, 26.10.2013 (MSJ)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor

The Cleveland Orchestra’s “Fate and Freedom” mini-festival of the music of Beethoven and Shostakovich ended strongly Saturday night. The three different programs were a departure from years of traditional repeats on the ensemble’s subscription season, but the interest and quality demonstrated surely justified the risks—not to mention, placing the orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Möst in good shape for their upcoming European tour.

Much more so than the Beethoven Third from Thursday night, Beethoven’s famous Fifth was effective in Welser-Möst’s streamlined manner. The first movement was urgently, even breathlessly paced, held-out notes barely lasting longer than the original note values, and notated pauses shortened in the forward push. The slow movement was hardly less urgently pushed forward, the brass interjections nobly sculpted. The scherzo was similarly swift, giving the lower strings a chance to show off their dexterity in the wild trio. Since Welser-Möst skipped the first movement repeat of the Eroica on Thursday, I figured he’d make all repeat choices based on the dimensions of the movements in the Fifth. He, indeed, opted to take the first movement repeat, needing all the potential notes available to give weight. Surprisingly, though, he also took the exposition repeat in the finale, arguably leaving the work architecturally bottom-heavy. But the playing remained exhilarating and Welser-Möst’s focused drive brought the piece home.

The Shostakovich Tenth was a fine performance, even if not quite up to the one the orchestra offered last winter in Akron, Ohio. Welser-Möst’s approach remains lucid and direct, proving that western artists truly have something to say, and that the traditional, somewhat rough-hewn approach of the Russians isn’t the only way this music can be played. Too often, western orchestras and conductors refine Shostakovich without keeping its white-hot intensity at the core. It was present here, though as the piece reached its later movements, there seemed a slight dimming of intensity from fatigue, not surprising after six masterpieces in three days.

Finest was the first movement, a twenty-minute stretch than can seem like endless wandering when put in the wrong hands. Welser-Möst shaped it as one expressive arc that unfolded from bleak silence, built to a towering climax and then dropped back down. The second movement, alleged to be Shostakovich’s savage portrait of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, was furious, if not quite as risky as it could be. The romantically forlorn and, at times, endearingly awkward third movement was beautifully played, with numerous expressive solos. The finale, showing Shostakovich defiant to the end, drew a very swift standing ovation from the capacity audience.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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