Franz Welser-Möst Finds the Beast in Mahler’s Sixth

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. 5.10.2017. (MSJ)

The Cleveland Orchestra Franz Welser-Möst, conductor PROGRAM MAHLER - Symphony No. 6 ("Tragic") Photo by Roger Mastroianni
The Cleveland Orchestra & Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) (c) Roger Mastroianni

Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor

After briskly walking onstage, Franz Welser-Möst politely nodded as the audience applauded. Stepping up to the podium, he tilted his head down in a moment of thought, then looked up sharply. The orchestra tensed and his arms lashed out, triggering the beginning of a fierce reading of Mahler’s Symphony No.6.

In the course of attending concerts of the Cleveland Orchestra over the last 33 years, I have heard this orchestra in many works, including this piece three times. And I have heard Welser-Möst dozens of times. But this was something new. This was not the tight-fisted control of Christoph von Dohnányi’s performances of the 1980s and 90s, nor was it the dramatic but lingering approach Michael Tilson Thomas used in 2004.

And it also was not one of Welser-Möst’s attenuated, infinitely refined creations. Instead, it seethed with snarling energy. This was the most physical I’ve ever seen from the conductor – arms slashing through the air, encouraging the most visceral sound I’ve ever heard this ensemble make. The brass were let off the leash and the woodwinds raised their bells, to make their sound cut through Mahler’s swirling textures. Welser-Möst gave particular attention to the strings, punching accents and making sense of the motivic relationships that abound.

The first movement was fast and furious, the kind of grab-you-by-the-throat performance this work needs but rarely receives. Only Leonard Bernstein is comparable in this movement, but even then, he indulged more in slow passages. Welser-Möst even kept the moments fleeting, elusive. This was a Mahler Sixth without letup. The so-called Alma theme, supposedly a portrait of Mahler’s wife, was red-bloodedly impetuous, fueling the brisk coda.

For the middle movements, Welser-Möst opted for the original Andante-Scherzo order, as published in Mahler’s lifetime. The critical edition published in the 1960s reversed that order after Alma’s assertion that Mahler had decided to change it, but in recent years, a move has been underway to restore the original layout. Having learned the piece Scherzo-Andante, I supported that approach for many years, but more recently, the original version seems emotionally right. Hearing it live sealed it: placing the slow movement second allowed the performers to tear into the first movement without reserve, then recuperate in the Andante, which Welser-Möst treated as a tender cradle song. The high violin glissando at the hushed turning point was perfectly placed, a true rarity, though the solo horn seemed to misplace a few notes in his first solo, unless there’s an alternate text I haven’t heard about. The glitch was so well-managed, it was virtually undetectable.

The Scherzo brought not just a return but a ratcheting up of tension. The tempo was daringly fast, with the whiplash effect of many phrases emphasized. Without exaggerated slowing, the passages Mahler described as “dancing with the devil” were seductive and sardonic, and the trio middle section was suitably mixed in emotion: smiling but not at all happy.

The finale, aptly described by Welser-Möst in his excellent program note as a “monster”, opened with a sweeping tempo that encompassed the darkness with glimmerings of orchestral color. Here, as elsewhere, the numerous orchestral solos were highly characterized. The conductor’s main tempo was again fast and focused. Most performances sag and never quite hold the half-hour long dramatic arc, but Welser-Möst understands that this daring movement’s emotional effect is like a panic attack – wave after unstoppable wave, until a catharsis is reached. I wouldn’t have minded a broader tempo at the very end, but that’s a minor concern in the light of the emotional commitment. Welser-Möst remained still for several moments after the final note, prolonging the silence, before the crowd leaped to its feet in a shouting ovation.

It took Welser-Möst some time to hit his stride in Cleveland, but it has become clear that he has joined the ranks of the finest masters of this ensemble. Indeed, for this particular work, he left Dohnányi and Szell in the dust. The ensemble will be taking the piece on a European tour. I hope that it plays in other venues as well as it did in Severance Hall, with its lucid, intimate acoustics. A more reverberant venue might offer challenges at such swift speeds, but the interpretation is bold, revealing the symphony as the glittering black beast it truly is.

The concert also offered a salute to Dennis LaBarre, who served as the President of the orchestra’s Board of Trustees from 2009 until this year, when he stepped down, but he remains as Chairman. LaBarre notably led the ensemble through the recent recession, and has worked at expanding both the orchestra’s endowment and its community activities. At the start of the concert, LaBarre was presented with the Distinguished Service Award by current Board President Richard K. Smucker. The Musical Arts Association, the governing non-profit organization of the orchestra, established the annual award in 1996 to recognize ongoing and extraordinary service.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

4 thoughts on “Franz Welser-Möst Finds the Beast in Mahler’s Sixth”

  1. That’s a very fine piece on Welser-Most and the CO’s Mahler Sixth. There were stretches of the first performance (esp. in the 2nd movement) when I felt that W-M didn’t quite have a handle on things, when it sounded like a run-through. But it sure picked up – “panic attack” is the right word. The last movement was riveting, and the closing note of bewilderment completely appropriate. I needed a stiff drink. I imagine by the time they hit Vienna, W-M will have found a way to give it a needed sense of spaciousness, without sacrificing the visceral. He’s come a long way.

  2. TOO fast. As you describe but don’t seem to notice. There should be SOME repose! And, yes, the first movement is a march and is relentless, but at this quick-march tempo it sounds like the troops are heading for the mess hall.

    “Indeed, for this particular work, he left Dohnányi and Szell in the dust.” In your dreams perhaps.

    Full disclosure: Bernstein gives me hives.

  3. The review contains a major misstatement of fact about the original order of the inner movements of Mahler’s Symphony No.6. In the first edition of Mahler 6, published in March 1906, the order of the inner movements was Scherzo – Andante. Mahler switched the order to Andante – Scherzo during his May 1906 rehearsals in Essen, and conducted his Sixth Symphony three times in his life with Andante – Scherzo as the order of the middle movements, with a request to his publisher to correct the first published edition. The point again is that Andante – Scherzo is not the “original version”, but the revised version.

    The ‘move to restore the original layout’ is thus actually a move to ‘restore the revised layout’, per Reinhold Kubik from his perch at the International Gustav Mahler Society (IGMG, German abbreviation) and his […] indefensible 2004 declaration that Andante – Scherzo was the ‘correct order’ and the official position of the IGMG. Either the original (Scherzo – Andante) or the revised (Andante – Scherzo) order may be used, as both options have evidence, to allow conductors the latitude to make his/her own choice.

    I remember Franz Welser-Möst conducting Mahler 6 in St. Louis back in 1998, with the original Scherzo – Andante order. Hopefully his reasons are genuinely musical, and not based on the Kubik kool-aid.


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