The Cleveland Orchestra shows its mettle in Mahler’s Fifth at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Widmann, Mahler: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York, 4.10.2019. (RP)

Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) with the Cleveland Orchestra © Chris Lee

Widmann – Trauermarsch

Mahler – Symphony No.5

When the Cleveland Orchestra returned to the stage for the second of its two concerts at Carnegie Hall, gone were the lovely waltzes, lively polkas and music of Beethoven at his most intimate and graceful that one heard the prior evening. Instead, things took a somber turn with the first work on the program – a funeral march, Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch.

Widmann holds the 2019–2020 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, and later in the season more of his orchestral works will be heard in concerts by the Munich Philharmonic, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and MET Orchestra. In January 2020, a new piece for string quartet will premiere at Carnegie Hall in a performance featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. According to Bachtrack, Widmann was the third most performed contemporary composer in 2018 after Arvo Pärt and John Williams.

Trauermarsch (2014) for piano and orchestra was composed for Yefim Bronfman on a joint commission from the Berlin Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Toronto Symphony. In Widmann’s words, the work, which unfolds ‘in one continuous movement, freely integrates Neo-romantic material with modernist textures to create a dramatic standoff in which the piano, after manipulating the orchestra in all directions, metaphorically sinks into its grave’.

I have no doubt that a consensus could be reached that Trauermarsch is modern music, but many would be left scratching their heads as to the Neo-romantic elements. The obvious link to the past is its genre: the funeral march, with its distinctive rhythm, has long intrigued composers. Think Chopin. With Bronfman as the soloist, however, there is no fear of the piano part being interred in the densest, darkest passages. The lightness of touch that he brought to even the most dramatic interludes, such as the march-like one that rested in the uppermost range of the piano, was particularly impressive.

Trauermarsch begins with the solo piano announcing the theme, which is quickly taken up by the solo trumpet. The orchestra textures are very complex, and the work is full of exotic orchestral colors. Particularly stunning were the pairing of the piano and vibraphone and the light, melodic passages for the piano towards the end of the work. A series of dramatic chords and the tolling of bells brought Trauermarsch to its conclusion, a musical experience best described as intense and relentless.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony also beings with a funeral march. From its first notes, I was struck by the deliberate intensity with which Franz Welser-Möst invested it. He was not merely observing the composer’s instruction to maintain a measured pace like a procession, but establishing a momentum that carried through to the finale. The German word Schwung – to set something in motion – perfectly describes the sensation I felt from the onset, and it never abated throughout the entire work.

For all variety of music programmed in the two concerts, the Mahler was the work that provided the orchestra an opportunity to prove its mettle. For the strings, it was not only the shimmering, transparent Adagietto that was played to perfection but also the fugal sections in the Scherzo that preceded it. The latter was memorable for both the earthiness of the sound and the jocularity with which they played. Woodwinds and percussion were likewise excellent, but Mahler doled out the most viscerally exciting music to the brass.

In this performance, Welser-Möst allotted Nathaniel Silberschlag, who assumed the role of principal horn with the orchestra earlier this year, a solo turn, positioning him front and center to play the Corno Obligato part in the Scherzo. Silberschlag’s tone is particularly robust and vibrant, with a clear, clarion-like quality. The principal trumpet also has a fair share of moments to shine, and Michael Sachs played them with bravura. When afforded his solo bow, Sachs, who joined the orchestra in 1988, walked over and heartedly congratulated Silberschlag.

Hearing the Cleveland Orchestra prompted a pang of nostalgia for me, as it was the first major orchestra that I ever heard live. It was on a high school field trip, and I have vivid memories of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition performed by the orchestra in Severance Hall, and of seeing one of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ for the first time at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I renewed my acquaintance with that particular Monet a few years back at an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Art and now, after far too long, am grateful to again hear the Cleveland Orchestra, especially in Carnegie Hall.

Rick Perdian

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