Berg and Webern Triumph Over Schoenberg

United StatesUnited States Webern, Berg, Schoenberg: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Cleveland Orchestra / Ingo Metzmacher (conductor), Cleveland, Ohio, 25.10.2018. (MSJ)

Christian Tetzlaff (c) Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff (c) Giorgia Bertazzi

Webern — Passacaglia Op.1
Berg — Violin Concerto
Schoenberg — Pelleas und Melisande Op.5

Even the milder works of the so-called Second Viennese School can dampen attendance figures, judging by the crowd for this concert by the Cleveland Orchestra. But while such a premise has often been used over the years for pronouncing dire warnings about audience open-mindedness, perhaps it is time to acknowledge a simple truth: Even with the less-aggressive works of these three composers, there is a darkness that will never place them as mainstream crowd-pleasers, no matter what compositional technique they used. They are expressionists, part of the same artistic movement that created Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (Perhaps the orchestra might have more success marketing such a concert to horror movie fans!)

One certainly must respect the dedication of guest conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who lit into all three works with passionate commitment, conducting with a blend of Boulezian rigor and Bernsteinian enthusiasm. But one wonders if the concert might have drawn a little more of a crowd with a different second half.

Of the first half, there can be no doubts. Webern’s Passacaglia and Berg’s Violin Concerto are stone-cold masterpieces. Remarkably, the Passacaglia has not shown up in Cleveland since Boulez programmed it twenty years ago. Although it is neither atonal nor serial, it clearly speaks with the same expressionistic voice recognizable from Webern’s later works. It is dark, yet clear. Metzmacher brought out the astonishing textural variety, from the gleaming winds to the characteristically snarling muted brass. Even after a long absence, the score was a revelation with the orchestra.

If the Passacaglia was sternly impressive, Berg’s concerto took on mesmerizing urgency, with its deft use of twelve-tone techniques to quasi-tonal ends. Recalling my first encounter with Christian Tetzlaff in Cleveland something like thirty years ago, he still looks vigorously young and plays with limitless energy. But over the years, he has pulled off the miracle of growing in depth. His emotional Berg imparted many moving stories of love and loss. Questions of compositional technique fell away, leaving only direct communication of the composer’s thoughts.

Tetzlaff still has immaculate technical control, displayed in faster passages, but his shaping and singing of phrases gave the piece new life. Metzmacher offered strong support, and made the reference to Bach near the end even more effective by having the winds avoid vibrato, giving the chorale a pure organ-like tone. The audience’s warm response provoked an encore, the Largo from Bach’s Sonata No.3 in C.

The second half, while delivered with equal skill, was another matter. I first heard Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande in 1987, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, and since have listened to recordings by Pierre Boulez and Herbert von Karajan. After this latest whirl with Metzmacher, I’m prepared to give my pronouncement: It’s not that good. It has some affecting moments, and one can recognize Schoenberg’s voice beginning to form. But this was the height of the composer’s self-conscious early years, when he was trying to forge a way forward creatively by using a Straussian gestural flamboyance as a vessel, with equal amounts of Wagnerian chromaticism and Brahmsian density thrown in. The end result is a thick, post-romantic sludge, nothing at all like the surgical brilliance of Mahler’s orchestrations.

Metzmacher worked hard to try and draw a level of orchestral commitment to match the Webern and Berg, but it was a futile mission, because there simply isn’t that much with which to engage. This is particularly evident at the critical turning point three-quarters of the way through. In any case, the piece was played beautifully, including some handsome solos from first associate concertmaster Peter Otto, standing in for former concertmaster William Preucil, who was fired last week after the orchestra’s investigation into accusations of sexual harassment against him. Principal trombone Massimo La Rosa was fired as well, also due to accusations of sexual misconduct. But despite these dramatic internal developments, the orchestra allowed no dimming of standards.

I have gone on record with my near-loathing of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelleas et Melisande, the source for the Schoenberg (as well as Debussy’s opera, which the orchestra performed brilliantly two seasons ago). Whatever one’s reaction to Maeterlinck’s gloom, one can acknowledge a sharp divide between the two composers’ responses. Everything that is deliciously elusive in Debussy becomes distressingly direct and obvious in Schoenberg’s hands. The fact that Schoenberg’s Pelleas was brought back when it was last programmed only three seasons ago is absurd. Bring the Webern back more often and put this over-ambitious, under-accomplished yawn-fest out to pasture. And in the event of another all-Second Viennese School concert featuring “safe” works, go with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1. That’s a masterpiece created when Schoenberg finally found a real voice, but before he outlawed traditional harmony entirely.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 is supported by an Individual Excellence grant in Criticism from the Ohio Arts Council.

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