Heroic Work in Cleveland from Welser-Möst

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Webern, R. Strauss: Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 21.3.2019. (MSJ)

Schubert – Symphony No.4 in C minor, ‘Tragic’

Webern – Six Pieces for Orchestra

R. StraussEin Heldenleben

There is a nuance lost in Cleveland Orchestra program annotator Hugh MacDonald’s emphasis on Richard Strauss’s ego, as supposedly expressed in Ein Heldenleben. Is there ego there? Certainly, for Strauss was by no means deficient in that area. But the traditional interpretation of Strauss’s title into English, A Hero’s Life, is wrong. The actual translation should be A Heroic Life, which suggests a playful and ironic deployment of the idea of ‘hero’, with tongue planted firmly in cheek — not a blind megalomaniac.

And Franz Welser-Möst’s approach certainly keeps the ego in check, possibly too much so, as his emphasis is predictably on charting a swift and lean course. The conductor doesn’t leave a lot of room for personality and swagger, but it is far preferable to squeezing every note for all it’s worth, since Strauss tended to load up his score as if he were scarfing notes at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Welser-Möst correctly understands that many of those notes must be played lightly or else the whole thing bogs down.

He also knows how to let a soloist shine and allowed ample space for first associate concertmaster Peter Otto to paint the violin solos representing Strauss’s wife Pauline with larger-than-life personality. Indeed, the capricious and volatile episodes — amounting to almost a violin concerto in the midst of this symphony — were the most impressive thing Otto has done with the orchestra to date, full of expression and vigorous in attack.

The entire woodwind section and the supporting brass deserve high marks for their fierce nagging as Strauss’s parodied-but-still-potent enemies. And Welser-Möst made the battle with the critics an exhilarating experience, surpassing former music director Christoph von Dohnányi, who was effectively colorful, but seemed embarrassed by the passage’s overt militarism. Welser-Möst made it noisy for comic effect, as it should be.

The later pages, as Strauss reviews his life thus far, grew quiet and lyrical, culminating in a gorgeous, brass-lad final sunburst and fade. It again demonstrated that Welser-Möst is one of the finest conductors of Strauss in the world today.

The connections between Ein Heldenleben and the other works were tenuous — even downright peculiar. Schubert’s Fourth Symphony was self-styled as ‘Tragic’, though its overall tone is nowhere near that dark. Welser-Möst kept it focused but allowed for a level of warmth not displayed the last time I heard this work live in Severance Hall, on a rare U.S. tour by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic. For all the distinctive gorgeousness of that orchestra’s sound, Harnoncourt reined in the piece for a severe, even glacial performance. Instead, Welser-Möst favored warmth and flexibility, making for brisk vigor in the first movement, quiet lyricism in the second, lively rhythm in the scherzo (with a charmingly guileless trio) and playful fun in the finale. The second theme of the finale romped like carnival music, as it should.

If there were any advantage to preceding Webern with Schubert, it was in emphasizing the former’s rarefied lyricism. Overall, though, the juxtaposition didn’t do much to illuminate either. In the past, both Dohnányi and Boulez conducted this set of pieces in Cleveland to much greater effect. Welser-Möst’s approach was, surprisingly, more severely classical than either of those stern maestros, so expressivity didn’t register as it sometimes does. The big difference between this and the audiences of decades ago? This crowd seemed far less restless and far more ready to give open-minded attention to Webern’s thorniness. Credit that flexibility to years of Welser-Möst’s creative programming.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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