A Young Austrian Makes an Impact in Cleveland

15/03/2019

Haydn, Deutsch, Tchaikovsky: Paul Jacobs (organ), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 14.3.2019. (MSJ)

Haydn – Symphony No.34 in D minor
Bernd Richard DeutschOkeanos (concerto for organ and orchestra) (2014-15)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5 in E minor

I don’t know to what degree Franz Welser-Möst devises his own programs and how much input other people at the Cleveland Orchestra have in that process, but this concert was brilliantly planned. Without an obvious, smack-you-in-the-face ‘theme’, the evening proved an engaging trio of complementary and contrasting works. All three were big news in different ways, in one of the best concerts of the season.

But the biggest story is the arrival of the orchestra’s new Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, a young Austrian by the name of Bernd Richard Deutsch. Remember his name. You will hear more from him in the future.

To welcome Deutsch to Cleveland, Welser-Möst chose to give the United states premiere of Okeanos, his recent organ concerto. (Deutsch is writing a new work for the orchestra next season, which I am now eagerly awaiting.) In Okeanos, not surprisingly, Deutsch uses a full battery of percussion instruments and invents new textures—typically the first handful from a modern composer’s bag of tricks. But this concerto, while full of dense textures and strange colors, strides across the mindscape with one foot in the avant-garde and the other in the world of popular orchestral music. Imagine a John Williams film score (on acid), and a thicket of notes, bursting out in a way that would make Schoenberg smile. Deutsch knows his history, and is also comfortable with contemporary styles, including minimalism and neo-romanticism, but he avoids cheap pastiche.

Even the Gothic potential of the organ (shades of Phantom of the Opera and silent movie scores) is sent up by Deutsch’s explosive creativity. New sounds abound, and beguile the ear. Every time clangor sets in and seems about to turn into one of those modern works (the grim, glowering sort) a sudden change of direction delights the listener. I mean that literally, since audience giggles were heard more than once. One of those came in the first movement, ‘Water’, which built up to a roaring climax, before most of the orchestra abruptly ceased — while the chorus of chimes and bells continued in a jaw-dropping halo. ‘Air’ was a dizzying scherzo, the slow ‘Earth’ had slithering string textures, and ‘Fire’ was a fast finale with equal parts wit and grit. Through it all, organist Paul Jacobs was a dynamo, giving this staggeringly difficult score an authority matched by Welser-Möst and the orchestra.

Another Cleveland premiere — though one of a different sort — preceded the Deutsch: Haydn’s Symphony No.34, an early work, with no colorful title. When Haydn shows up on a contemporary orchestra menu — even that is fairly rare — it is almost always one of his ‘Paris’ or late ‘London’ symphonies. Anything outside of those sets is rare, even though they account for a fraction of Haydn’s symphonic output.

Yet color abounds, from the restrained, mournful string sighs of its opening slow movement, to the perky drive of its second. (Incidentally, has anyone ever considered the possibility that the movements simply got out of order in the manuscript? The D minor key of the slow movement does not return in the finale, which is not typical of a classical symphony, whereas the second and fourth movements here are both in a bright D major.)

The third movement Menuet overflowed with bubbly oboes, subtly anticipating Deutsch’s oceanic textures to follow, and the finale moved like the wind. The orchestra clearly enjoyed the expedition, and one hopes Welser-Möst will keep poking around in Haydn’s less-traveled corners.

After a buoyant first half, an old warhorse might prove anticlimactic, but not on this occasion. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is a repertory staple, yet Welser-Möst cut an individual path, and refused to blindly follow tradition. Here the countering of this romantic masterpiece with classical Haydn became clear. By restraining and understating the Tchaikovsky, Welser-Möst made it speak more eloquently.

While one could debate the briskness (even brusqueness) of the conductor’s opening Andante, he shrewdly controlled the expressive style, eschewing heavy vibrato and dense textures. Those might come later, but not in the opening measures, which were restrained and tense, rather than somber and morose.

Likewise, the conductor struck a quick pace for the main body of the first movement, yet avoided sounding merely militant by encouraging the string players to dig in to their figurations. Then, holy-of-holies, Welser-Möst did something I have been waiting for over 30 years to hear: He did the slow part of the second theme as Tchaikovsky instructed, just slightly slower than the main tempo, instead of the usual slam-on-the-breaks-and-wallow. It was a great moment in Tchaikovsky performance, actually letting the score speak as written. Referencing over a century of performing and recording the Fifth, I have never heard that relationship done correctly.

The tempo was likewise limpid yet unsentimental in the glorious Andante cantabile. Granted, Welser-Möst could probably leave the lovely solo horn a little more room to rhapsodize — after all, Tchaikovsky did write ‘con alcuna licenza’, suggesting improvisatory freedom. But the clarity and honesty brought the movement to life in a way that is rarely heard. When David Zinman and Manfred Honeck did the same piece here, neither dared to leave the beaten path.

The third movement waltz was scintillating and light on its feet as well, transferring the dramatic heft to the finale, which was slightly broader in pace than many. But in the extended coda, Welser-Möst returned to the dominantly brisk pacing, and nailed the tricky metrical modulation into the closing trumpet and horn fanfares — simply outstanding.

Mark S. Jordan

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