Some Rare Visitors to the Concert Hall in Ohio

United StatesUnited States Milhaud, Roussel, Beethoven: Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 15.07.2017 (MSJ)

Milhaud – Le Boeuf sur le Toit
Roussel – Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No.2
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Seven days prior to this concert, Franz Welser-Möst kicked off the Cleveland Orchestra’s Blossom Music Festival with a dapper Beethoven symphony and some vigorous yet stylish French music. A week later and much of what made that concert special was in short evidence.

The tone of the evening was set by a badly miscalculated Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof), a absurdist ballet score inspired by the popular music Darius Milhaud heard in Brazil when he worked there from 1917 to 1919. Though brilliant on the surface with parts that are great fun, it is a carefully crafted fantasy of street music with a recurring original theme. Perhaps Welser-Möst was concerned that the piece be taken seriously and not dismissed as a trifle, and, indeed, the conductor showed great care with dynamics and phrasing. One could have copied out the score listening to this performance. And the leaden pace at which it unfolded would have allowed ample time to jot it all down.

Clearly Welser-Möst was at pains to avoid the gear-changing that conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Kent Nagano have imposed, with their fast refrain and suddenly slowed-down fado melodies. Welser-Möst decided to make everything slow, bringing great sophisticated gleam to the lyrical parts of the score, but resolutely nailing its dancing feet to the floor in the fast ones. The orchestra seemed to be leaning into phrases at times, hoping to be let off the leash, but the conductor kept reining them back to a pedestrian pace, robbing most of the charm. While the conductor’s care in balancing Milhaud’s colorful and at times bitonal harmonies was most welcome, the essential spirit was not honored. This performance was more Bavaria than Brazil, far too much Boeuf and not nearly enough Toit. It was a sad fate for a composer who hangs on the periphery of the repertory.

Another rare visitor to the concert hall is Albert Roussel. A French composer of the generation before Milhaud, Roussel was a prickly harmonist more than a melodist. Though he was influenced by Debussy, he never fully adopted the Impressionist sheen of most of his contemporaries, keeping a feisty edge to his music. The Suite No. 2 from his ballet Bacchus et Ariane is actually the entire second act, preserving the narrative arc of the plot. Musically, it builds up an impressive head of steam, culminating in a wild “Bacchanale” and closing scene.

The Roussel was the best of the evening, with the Cleveland Orchestra’s exquisite sheen deployed evocatively. The livelier parts were initially rather cool, but a spark finally kicked in and lifted the performance to greater intensity – if still not the kind of wild-eyed commitment that the work is capable of generating (as in Igor Markevitch’s early stereo recording from the 1950’s). Nevertheless: serviceable, suave, and satisfying, and the large audience received it warmly.

Beethoven’s balletic Symphony No. 7 started off promisingly with a flowing introduction, made sumptuous by the full strings complement instead of the reduced number used in Beethoven’s day. And the main part of the movement began well, too, with Welser-Möst ensuring that the string phalanx did not wash out the wind instruments. But as the movement unfolded, it never quite generated real excitement, for at key moments, Welser-Möst kept deploying a mannered attenuation of attacks and a smoothing of phrasing that vitiated any sense of forward drive. To my eyes, it didn’t even match what is written in the score. Instead of the vital pulse so often associated with the work, it seemed Welser-Möst was determined to make it into another Pastoral Symphony.

This approach worked better for the not-quite-slow second movement. The strings’ rich glow was a thing of wonder. But, still, it never quite clicked. The depths of emotion were acknowledged—and bypassed. The scherzo burbled along at something less than Beethoven’s marked “Presto” speed, with genial but generalized trios. Then, as if to make up for the lack of preceding excitement, Welser-Möst launched into the finale at a racing speed, much faster than Beethoven’s “Allegro con brio” designation. In fact, it was so fast that the main theme in the violins turned into a blur, between the vast number of strings and the pavilion’s reverberant acoustics. If one knew the theme, one could fill in the notes. Those who didn’t already know the tune were left behind in the sonic fog. If the tempo was a calculated move to draw forth a big ovation, it worked, but it was disappointing as an overreaction to the preceding movements’ amiable aimlessness.

It was a curious follow-up to the deftly poised interpretation that Welser-Möst delivered last week in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Previous encounters with the conductor’s other Beethoven performances makes one wonder if a clear concept will emerge when Welser-Möst tackles a full cycle of the composer’s symphonies in Cleveland next spring.

Mark S. Jordan

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