Igniting the Blossom Festival, Welser-Möst Shows Skillful Balance

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Berlioz: Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 8.7.2017. (MSJ)

Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D major Op.36
Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14

Authentic or traditional? Expressive or reserved? Architectural or spontaneous?

Music-making, like life, is full of either/or questions demanding hard right or left turns. Hail to Franz Welser-Möst and Cleveland Orchestra, kicking off the Blossom Music Festival this month, for refusing to bow to extremes and, instead, finding the true middle path with skillful balance.

Beethoven’s Second Symphony is not one of the German composer’s greatest hits, coming as it did before he reinvented the world of the symphony in his heroic Third. The Second is still in many ways a conventional classical symphony, but one can find repeated moments of Beethoven’s inspiration roiling beneath the surface, restlessly making new combinations and preparing to launch off in new directions. He mostly restrains that new chemistry, but it is starting to bubble.

The composer was also actively seeking distraction as he wrote, for at that point in 1802, he was beginning to despair and struggle with suicidal thoughts as he realized he was losing his hearing. By the next symphony, Beethoven was ready to trust his gift and kick art music up to a whole new level, but here he was still cautious, though always on the verge of breaking through.

The work can be treated as a pale, early example of epic Beethoven, or it can be punched up as a feisty late Haydn-style piece. The latter has become dominant in recent years with the rise of historically-informed performance, and Welser-Möst might be expected to fall closer to this approach due to his history of fast, fleet Beethoven. But the conductor has been evolving over the years. Where once his approach seemed to be, “head down and full speed ahead,” this performance demonstrated flexibility, ebb, and flow. Also, instead of reducing his forces, Welser-Möst used a full complement of strings, quite a few more than what Beethoven would have expected.

At the same time, however, the conductor was not trying to revert to the nostalgic, overly lush style that used to be imposed on works like this a few decades back. The tempos were generally quick but not breathless, accented but never punchy, crisp but attenuated where a softer attack paid expressive dividends. In short, Welser-Möst refused to set up camp on either side of the stylistic argument and instead blended the best of both worlds to create a compromise of the noblest sort: lithe, yet full of indications that Beethoven was starting to envision more epic vistas.

Since Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in many ways created the orchestra was we know it today, there is less fuss about authentic vs. modern style. The argument here is between sensationalizing the work’s lurid programmatic depictions or restraining the extremes to put the focus on the work’s musical values. Again, Welser-Möst saw this dilemma as false, and drew the ends together to make the work come to life.

Berlioz’s program involves a young artist hallucinating on an opium trip about the woman he is infatuated with, culminating in her murder and his execution, followed by an orgy of witches and demons at his own funeral. With such juicy material, too many conductors treat the piece like a party game, playing it fast, loud, and vulgar as a way to wow easily impressed audiences. Some conductors, offended by that approach, tone it down and point out that there’s more to Berlioz’s invention than sex and drugs. The first approach grows tiring, because it treats this revolutionary score as trivial, but the latter approach puts a muzzle on Berlioz’s wildness.

Welser-Möst honored Berlioz by letting the madness blaze, while never glossing over the composer’s subtleties. The finest moments were at each end of the volume scale: rapt moments of near-silence in the slow movement, and dangerously eruptive volleys of brass and percussion near the end of the finale. While Welser-Möst can be very reserved at times, his Fantastique was red-blooded and vital, though never losing poise. And just as the Beethoven sported a suitably blended, Germanic sound, the Berlioz was more tart and open. The brass players, in particular, used a more articulated, less legato manner of playing, the epitome of French style.

There was plenty of nervous energy to propel the allegros forward, but that was balanced with expansiveness where needed. Oboist Frank Rosenwein stepped offstage to answer Robert Walters’ English horn solos in the slow movement, as called for in the score. More surprisingly, the tubular bells in the last movement were not offstage as Berlioz also wrote, but instead clanged away too obviously onstage – the only miscalculation of the evening. The “March to the Scaffold” was just this side of being a “Race to the Scaffold,” but was irresistible in its forward movement, including that moment when the clarinet brings back the theme representing the artist’s beloved, cut off by the guillotine of a slashing full-orchestra chord. Welser-Möst kept the passage in tempo, the vision fleeting.

For a work that has not featured prominently in Welser-Möst’s repertory, he gave a confident, coherent performance that made it more than just musical sensationalism, without ever soft-pedaling the composer’s audacious inspiration. Again, given the choice between two ideologically pure extremes, Welser-Möst rejected them both and instead found the true path.

It’s an idea that is ripe for our time.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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