United States In Focus / Episode Seven: Memory and Transformation: Strings of the Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Reviewed as a video stream from Severance Hall, Cleveland, 29.3.2021. (MSJ)
Shostakovich – Chamber Symphony in C minor (arr. by Rudolf Barshai from the String Quartet No.8)
Messiaen – ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’ from Éclairs sur l’au-delà
The Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst, is fond of string orchestra adaptations of chamber music such as quartets. The change in scale is often illuminating, though some pieces take the transformation better than others. Few work better in the expansion than Dmitri Shostakovich’s eighth quartet, an intense meditation on darkness interwoven with personal symbolism.
My first encounter with the piece was in my teens, when I was already devoted to classical music. One night, one of my two older brothers ran into the house and said, ‘Hey, you need to come hear this’. My brothers – not usually big fans of classical music – had been sitting in the driveway of our family home, flipping through stations on the car radio. Landing on the local classical station (Cleveland’s WOSU, still one of the finest in the US), they were stopped in their tracks by a piece of music of terrifying intensity. That my brothers felt it necessary to summon me to hear it told me it was of unusual importance, and so it remains decades later.
Shostakovich infamously suffered many clashes with the Soviet overlords of Russia and had to master the ability to nervously waltz through bureaucratic minefields to keep his career going, which he somehow did. But when he toured the still-devastated, bombed-out ruins of Dresden after World War II, it triggered his already dark outlook into creating one of the most grim and haunting pieces ever written, his String Quartet No.8. Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai was the one who spotted the potential for the work to be expanded to a full complement of symphonic strings, and he did so with Shostakovich’s permission.
Full strings can never have quite the unnerving intimacy of the original work, but what they can offer is a harrowing weight, writing the piece’s drama large. And the Cleveland Orchestra’s strings do just that, digging in imposingly in the threatening moments of the music, then retreating into stunned isolation, vibratoless and icy. The performance emerges in one breath.
Welser-Möst ensures that the tension of the music is never allowed to dissipate, keeping the slow movements as inexorable as the violent second movement. Even at the end of the final largo, the conductor refuses to relax the tension by slowing down. Instead, the music gets softer and softer, disappearing into itself without ever releasing its hypnotic hold.
To counter the grimness of Shostakovich’s bleak vision, Welser-Möst follows it with ‘Le Christ, lumière du Paradis’, the finale from Olivier Messiaen’s last major work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond). His complex string chords, underpinned by three trilling triangles, do not offer easy comfort, but the movement’s ascetic faith counters Shostakovich’s darkness with brightness. The work’s 70-minute parent piece is Messiaen at his most static and devotional, and it is good to hear a section of it separately – the entire work is a big bite to chew. I must say, though, that the effect here is not particularly consoling. Rather, Messiaen offers a vision of serenity that is, in its way, far colder than Shostakovich’s all-too-human terror. All things considered, I find the terror a lot more relatable.
Welser-Möst talks movingly about how the fear and isolation of the Shostakovich relate to the Covid-19 pandemic in a bonus video. As always with this series, the sound and video are of very high quality.
Mark Sebastian Jordan
Subscriptions to the Cleveland Orchestra’s Adella streaming app are available at Adella.Live or on their website (click here).