United States In Focus / Episode Eleven, Order and Disorder: Afendi Yusuf (clarinet), Stephen Rose (violin), Jeanne Preucil Rose (violin), Lynne Ramsey (viola), Mark Kosower (cello), Strings of The Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Performed in Severance Hall, Cleveland, 18-19.3 and 14.4.2021 and reviewed as a video stream. (MSJ)
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major K.581
Berg – Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite (arr. Berg)
The latest pandemic program from The Cleveland Orchestra contrasts the expressive worlds of Mozart and Berg. A further level of contrast is found between chamber textures in the Mozart, played by members of the orchestra, and a full complement of strings for the Berg, led by music director Franz Welser-Möst.
For comparison in the Berg, I listened to the recordings by Michael Gielen and the Cincinnati Symphony from 1982, and the one by Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic from 1978. These earlier performances are restrained and careful, with both conductors rigorously corralling their players to keep them on track. But here, the strings of The Cleveland Orchestra have such a depth and security of sound that Welser-Möst can emphasize the warmth and lilt of the music. He finds the lushness, the emotion that drench this score. In one of the bonus videos, the conductor talks about how he and the players were able to reach this level of total engagement with the music because the pandemic gave them the extra time they wouldn’t normally have during a regular schedule.
Whether it is the Viennese swing of the first movement, the whispery weirdness of the second (contrasted with its suddenly ardent trio) or the unresolved passions of the third, this performance unlocks the emotion of Berg’s world in a direct and moving way. It sets a new bar for the piece. Kudos to everyone involved.
No less a level is displayed by orchestra members involved in the performance of Mozart’s late clarinet quintet. The work comes from a time when Mozart’s health and finances were collapsing, yet it is perhaps the least shadowy of his late works. In this chamber piece, the composer escapes into a classical purity, a world where laws of proportion and balance work in a way the real world rarely allows.
The orchestra’s principal clarinet, Afendi Yusuf, is a true master of his instrument. The clarinet, more than any other classical instrument, creates a sound whose wavelengths are almost a pure sine wave, like a neutral computer-generated tone. That contrasts the instrument with, say, an oboe, which has a much more complex tone, automatically giving it a sense of warmth, whereas the clarinet is often described as ‘cool’ sounding. But Yusuf can take that pure sine wave and give it the inflections of a human voice, singing like an operatic soprano in the slow movement, and tumbling with laughter in the finale.
Yusuf is a perfect fit for The Cleveland Orchestra because he knows when to step back and let his colleagues shine, as in the viola-led variation in the finale where Yusuf drops back into the clarinet’s veiled chalumeau register while Lynne Ramsey tenderly opens up one of the few shadowy passages of the work on her viola, before passing the spotlight to first violin Stephen Rose. Jeanne Preucil Rose on second violin and Mark Kosower on cello were also equal partners in exploring Mozart’s world of grace and poise. My only reservation was the slightly drowsy tempo for the menuetto movement, which did not sparkle as much as Mozart ideally can.
The sound for the Berg was the usual handsome balance typical of this series, only briefly marred visually at one point by the movement of a camera crane caught by another camera. The sound for the Mozart was somewhat different, offering a very close focus on the five players, so that the resonance of the hall (normally fairly slight in Severance) gave them a surrounding halo. It was a nice creative tweak.
The program includes bonus videos of Yusuf talking about Mozart and the clarinet, and Welser-Möst talking about the Berg.
Mark Sebastian Jordan
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