Franz Welser-Möst’s humane Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony soars in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Mahler: Marie-Nicole Lemieux (contralto), Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (chorus director: Lisa Wong), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 29.9.2022. (MSJ)

The score of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 on display in the Severance Music Center © Roger Mastroianni

Mahler – Symphony No.2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’

Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra last performed Mahler’s Second four years ago. It was a different world then, and subsequent events have left discernable marks on us all. In the aftermath of Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Cleveland Orchestra has risen to the occasion, offering streaming concerts and programming that reflects world crises. This season-opening concert continues that trend of growth and relevancy, and it also marks the arrival in Cleveland of Mahler’s original autograph score, gifted to the orchestra by Austrian businessman Herbert Kloiber.

The score was on display in the lobby, and it is remarkable to look at it and see both Mahler’s practicality – it was open to a page where the composer had crossed out a passage – and his precision. It was nothing like the furious scrawl of a Beethoven score, but was instead noted in tiny, precise handwriting, and Welser-Möst’s Mahler reflected that precision and control.

In 2018, Welser-Möst conducted a Mahler’s Second that was rather driven and rigid, and I hit it hard in my Seen and Heard International review. Four years and a world later, the conductor’s overall frame has remained consistent to his classical vision of the work, but within that concept, his handling of the moment-to-moment detail has undergone a sea change. What impressed on this occasion was the sheer humanity of the performance. I also hope that my openness to the conductor’s approach has widened. Whatever our differences on details, we are on the same team, wanting to make sure that a busy world stops long enough to let this music change and enrich their lives.

Welser-Möst remains committed to a sleek first movement. But there was a greater flexibility and more of a sense of engagement with the quiet passages than in 2018. I understand Welser-Möst’s opinion – given in an illuminating program note – that far too many conductors have run amok with the first movement, turning it into a grandstanding funeral march. However, conductors such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer proved long ago that it can move swiftly but pack a real punch. In this newest incarnation, Welser-Möst has moved closer to a full realization of the first movement, but his intention to shift architectural focus to later in the work remains his personal spin.

I have no reservations about the subsequent movements, which teemed with much more life than in the 2018 performance. The second movement danced with the kind of Viennese charm that Welser-Möst has been cultivating in his recent explorations of Schubert. The scherzo, less hectic than before, allowed room for Mahler’s seething, slithering lines to squirm as they should. In particular, Welser-Möst has achieved a level of trust with his principals and can allow them great freedom in solo passages, further developing the sense of personal connection in the performance.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Lauren Snouffer, the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus © Roger Mastroianni

The fourth movement, ‘Urlicht’, was less rigid now, and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux settled richly into the text with an ideal balance of warmth and urgency. The finale – always the highlight of Welser-Möst’s concept – was even better this time around, with the conductor allowing space for the music to unfold organically. The only rushed passage, predictably enough, was the pair of percussion crescendos marking the Judgment Day of Mahler’s implied program. As ever, Welser-Möst shrank away from violence and put his emphasis on the gentle passages, and they bloomed beautifully.

The soprano solos are less sizable than the contralto part, but Lauren Snouffer made an impact with her total commitment. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was likewise rich and alert, a continuing tribute to Lisa Wong’s excellent direction. The orchestra itself was in formidable form, playing this music like it matters, which it does.

After years of disruption, this concert marked another milestone: it was the first regular concert I have seen since the pandemic to have a full-capacity crowd. Their hunger for what this music and this ensemble offers was palpable, and it was delivered. Franz Welser-Möst enters his twenty-first season in Cleveland at the height of his powers but, importantly, he is still growing. May we all do the same.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

4 thoughts on “Franz Welser-Möst’s humane Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony soars in Cleveland”

  1. So often it seems that Welser-Möst takes the approach that everyone else has done it wrong, but yet his interpretations to my ears are almost always unconvincing (his Schubert included and substantiated by some of the recent reviews from New York and Europe). I’ve always admired the recordings by some of the conductors who take the “sleek” approach to the first movement of the Mahler. However, listening to the live broadcast, I found the Welser-Möst performance to be perfunctory and the great Cleveland ensemble sounded out of synch until the last 2 movements. By then I lost interest and my opinion vacillated between ‘bad’ in terms of the performance and ‘sad’ in terms of what this orchestra used to be (albeit different under prior music directors). There have been some wonderful Welser-Möst performances over the years, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The encouraging development is that he is only conducting in Cleveland about 8 weeks this season. It’s premature to predict if management is looking for a successor. One can only hope.

    • Franz Welser-Möst has a contract with TCO that runs through 2028. People should not look for the negative about him. He is absolutely brilliant and the orchestra has been sounding better than ever.

  2. [Reply to Mark’s comment above] Perhaps the broadcast you listened to was from a different night than the one streaming on Adella. If we heard the same performance we definitely did not hear the same performance, if you take my meaning.

    FWM will be remembered for his Mahler and especially for this performance. I say WITHOUT HYPERBOLE the CO has never sounded better. EVER. I heard absolutely nothing out of sync. I could not hear one mistake. And I have listened to HUNDREDS of live performances of the CO under various conductors over the years. Welser-Möst was practically sobbing by the final notes. As was I. Hardly perfunctory. He had to compose himself before turning to the soloists and the audience.

    As the review notes, The CO was given the ONLY autographed manuscript in the world of Mahler’s Symphony No.2 before the performance. The manuscript includes hand-written notes from Mahler that never made it to print that ask for a fast initial tempo. Did GM change his mind? Or did those instructions not make it to print? Who knows?

    You can see and hear how this most attentive of attentive orchestras in the world is at its highest degree of concentration. They clearly take their custodianship of the manuscript with utmost sincerity. I believe that is why the performance is so exceptional.

    • My reactions were based on the live broadcast from opening night. I don’t know if that was the same performance streamed on Adella. I listened with others, but I was the only one to stay with the performance to the end. My reservations about ensemble issue that night were similar to ones expressed in published reviews of Strauss’ Don Juan (e.g., Stereophile (July)). That said, subsequent concerts lead by other conductors did not disappoint.

      Faster tempos in Mahler are nothing new. Bruno Walter’s recording of the 2nd Symphony is an excellent choice for this approach. And I generally prefer that approach to ones that are too slow and stretch out the phrases. However, both approaches can be convincing with the right conductor.

      A very memorable performance was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Blossom in 1970. The then Cleveland Orchestra sounded absolutely magnificent. They sound very good now most of the time, but not better than ever to my ears. Reviews of their last Carnegie Hall concert noted some technical issues, which is something I don’t recall under their last 3 music directors. Reviews from their summer European tour also were pretty mixed.


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