The Cleveland Orchestra’s European tour sendoff gleams

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Berg: Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 26.8.2022. (MSJ)

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

R. StraussMacbeth, Op.23; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks Op.28; Suite in Three Parts from Der Rosenkavalier

Berg – Three Pieces from Lyric Suite

The Cleveland Orchestra’s 2022 autumn tour of Europe will give nine cities an opportunity to hear the ensemble’s remarkable sound in an intriguing set of pieces. All are works that music director Franz Welser-Möst has explored deeply, and two are among his most formidable interpretations, a glowering Bruckner Ninth and a glowing Schubert Great C major. Modern music will be represented by two Wolfgang Rihm works, and the modern music of the previous century by Berg’s Three Pieces arranged for string orchestra from the Lyric Suite. The remainder is a selection of works by Richard Strauss.

The orchestra has started recording the orchestral works of Strauss on their in-house label, and it is an important project: Welser-Möst is one of today’s premier Strauss conductors. What is notable, though, is that he is a rare one who echoes the first generation of Strauss interpreters, including the composer himself. It is remarkable that Strauss’s music has so often been represented by conductors who exaggerated the color and style for maximum effect, including such names as Herbert von Karajan, Fritz Reiner and even, to some extent, Cleveland’s legendary music director from 1946 to 1970, George Szell. The early interpreters, following Strauss’s lead, were swift and light on their feet, not underlining every point with a bold marker. Those outstanding interpreters included Clemens Krauss and Karl Böhm. The sole voice from the next generation who maintained this style was Rudolf Kempe, and even he lost some of the neoclassical nimbleness of Strauss himself. Welser-Möst brings that element to the fore.

Best of all in this send-off concert was, arguably, the opening performance of Strauss’s early tone poem, Macbeth. The piece is a rare visitor not only to concerts but to the recording studio as well. For many years, the reference recordings were by Antal Doráti (Decca) and Lorin Maazel (Deutsche Grammophon), but Welser-Möst has laid claim to Macbeth in recent years, performing it better than either of those illustrious directors. Where they both tried to make it sound more like later Strauss by exaggerating and hectoring, Welser-Möst believes in it, leading it like the solid mid-Romantic work it is. He demonstrates that, while not a masterpiece, it is nonetheless a real and worthy part of the Strauss canon, the composition in which we can hear him finding his voice. Fortunately, this interpretation has already been preserved on one of the orchestra’s releases.

Also on that release and on this tour is Till Eulenspiegel. In this concert, it was a taut and reserved performance, held back until the crescendo into the execution scene, where prankster Till is put to death for his mischief and mockery. That crescendo doesn’t happen in most performances which have already built up too much steam to add any more, so it was satisfying to hear Strauss’s dramatic shape perfectly executed for once. Part of how Welser-Möst achieves this restraint, though, is by holding back the earlier parts of the work, including the opening horn call, which is often given more sassy characterization than was permitted here. Programmed as it was after the Berg pieces for string orchestra, the brass had to warm back up to hit optimal voice after being silent for fifteen minutes.

Berg’s Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite has been a frequent visitor of late in Cleveland, but it was given interesting context among the Strauss pieces. While Berg’s kinship to Mahler is often pointed out, his roots certainly go back into Strauss as well, and this juxtaposition bore it out, proving that Berg’s serial approach can fit effectively among Strauss works, especially in such a radiant performance. It will be fascinating during the upcoming Cleveland Orchestra season when Welser-Möst tries an experiment that intermingles these pieces with the two movements of Franz Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony.

The second half of the concert was given over to the conductor’s arrangement of an extended suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Having been associated with the progressive edge of music during his youth, Strauss began a long retreat into nostalgic neoclassical reserve with this opera. What one hears most often in concert are a couple of ‘bleeding-chunk’ excerpts of the most famous waltzes. Welser-Möst’s suite provides more context, perhaps a lot more context than the average listener will want, while still including the ‘greatest hits’.

The fascinating thing about how this extra context worked is that it included some faster passages from the opera which crystalized the programming of the Berg. The middle movement of the Berg can be thought of as being very similar to this fast part of the Strauss, which features the same kind of wildly chromatic and dissonant writing. The difference is that Strauss kept his music moored to tonality, whereas Berg cast free of it. If one could divorce the Strauss of its tonality, it would flow seamlessly into the Berg.

I greatly appreciated that insight, and I was delighted by how Welser-Möst kept the famous waltzes poised and focused without ever letting Strauss’s rich sentiment turn into mawkish sentimentality. That is the hallmark of fine Strauss conducting. Whether quite so much of the quiet and slow context was necessary in this suite is debatable, but it was warmly received by the audience, and it certainly stands as an admirable testament to what Welser-Möst has achieved here: in an increasingly brutal world, the Cleveland Orchestra is a shrine to poised beauty.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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