A Dvořák rarity scores over subdued Janáček in Cleveland

13/01/2020

United StatesUnited States Dvořák, Mozart, Janáček: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 9.1.2020. (MSJ)

The Cleveland Orchestra & Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) (c) Roger Mastroianni

Dvořák – Symphony No.4 in D Minor Op.13
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor K491
JanáčekSinfonietta

Lively programming has been a hallmark of the Welser-Möst era in Cleveland, and though this program looked intriguing on paper, the reality proved puzzling. The good news was a joyous, dancing performance of a rarity that would be welcome more often; the predictable news was a solid, serious performance of a repertory staple; and the bad news was a lackluster performance of a work that has potential to be glorious.

Best was the first return to Cleveland since 1982 of Antonín Dvořák’s youthful Fourth Symphony, which the composer never published and did not include in his official list of symphonies. In an unusual move, posterity overruled the composer and added his four early essays in the genre to his five published symphonies to complete the set of nine. But the early symphonies remain underexposed, even when parts of them approach greatness.

Listening to Dvořák’s Fourth live, one can understand the composer’s reasons for not publishing it. The first movement has fine themes, but the development is a more workmanlike than inspired. The slow movement is weak — basically imitation Wagner that keeps threatening to break out into real Dvořák, but never quite makes it. But the scherzo is a feisty, energetic romp with a giddy woodland march for a trio, quite the match for any of the composer’s other tasty scherzi. The finale is a little repetitious, but the catchy main theme is instantly memorable. Welser-Möst and the orchestra made no apologies for the work’s flaws and relished its strengths, which are considerable. This is exactly the sort of rare repertory that deliciously spices a program. Let’s hope its next visit is sooner.

Committed yet coiled and reserved, Yefim Bronfman gave an intense, old-school reading of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24. The slow movement sang warmly, and Welser-Möst matched the pianist’s large-scaled manner with committed support. The only possible hesitation is that the concerto has been programmed three times in the last four years in Cleveland, when there are other worthy pieces that have been heard far less often. But the quality of the reading made it indesputably worthwhile.

As the Dvořák took up the first half, the Mozart was an unexpected overture for Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. I am not sure what connection, if any, this juxtaposition was meant to demonstrate. Perhaps it was merely an argument for Welser-Möst’s peculiar conception, which was apparently to try and force Janáček’s masterpiece to be smoothly lyrical and emotionally cool.

Things started well, with a brisk tempo for the opening fanfare. But the conductor relentlessly held back the nine trumpets — lined up along the back of the Severance Hall stage — to the point that they emitted less sound than the orchestra’s regular two or three usually do. Principal Michael Sachs alone emitted as much sound as the rest of the section.

Why this soft-pedaling of dynamics? Yes, Severance Hall is smaller than many other venues, and there is a potential for massed brass to get noisy. But Janáček wanted to evoke his vibrant provincial hometown of Brno, and wrote the fanfare in particular to evoke a brass band. If it isn’t raucous, what exactly is the point? Squashed dynamics aside, Welser-Möst made the tempo transitions smoothly in the fanfare, but slowed down its final bar, something not even hinted at in the score.

The second movement galumphed, with the musicians occasionally trying to push the pace. Each time, Welser-Möst strictly slammed on the brakes, sapping the score’s life. The third movement started more promisingly, finally matching the conductor’s desire for elegant lyricism. But the wild ride launched by the trombone section in the middle was underpowered and under-tempo, with any high spirits grimly suppressed. The orchestra looked downright glum.

The straightforward fourth movement fared better, as it offered fewer opportunities for Welser-Möst to insulate against energy instead of conducting it, but he did find one place, pacing the closing bars well below the ‘presto’ and subsequent ‘prestissimo’ of the score.

The finale started well, at a restless tempo. But instead of using the score’s tempo changes as nuances, Welser-Möst again hit the brakes, apparently trying to clarify textures that, as far as I can tell, were meant to be gestural, not pristine. The conductor’s determination to make this unruly beast behave was seen in the closing pages, where he again inhibited the brass, suppressing their chords to clarify the trills being played by the strings and woodwinds. Admittedly, a lot of conductors do that. But all it takes is a quick glance at the score to see that Janáček said no such thing. Everything, especially the brass, is supposed to be going full-tilt in the closing pages — not merely a polite crescendo in the final bar, and belatedly reaching the level of energy and volume that should have started 25 minutes earlier.

Janáček’s Sinfonietta is not a gentle, shapely bit of refined local color. It was the endorphin-washed eruption of an elderly man who had fallen in love with a muse (Kamila Stösslová) who set his imagination on fire. None of that was evident from Welser-Möst’s relentlessly sober take.

It was a surprising misfire from a conductor who led Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen so effectively here just a couple of years ago. But when the conductor gets a concept in his head, he consistently sees it through, and here he appeared to be controlling and subduing a work he must see as wayward. I salute that his music-making can provoke thought and argument, even when I couldn’t disagree more vehemently with its emotional tone.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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