Franz Welser-Möst returns to Cleveland, sounding ‘Frankly Wiser Than Most’

United StatesUnited States Krenek, Mahler, Bartók: Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Liivestreamed on from the Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 13.1.2024. (MSJ)

Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in the livestream

KrenekKleine Symphonie, Op.58
MahlerAdagio from Symphony No.10 in F-sharp major
Bartók (arr. Konopka) – String Quartet No.3; Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin

This weekend was a doubly momentous occasion for the Cleveland Orchestra. It marked the return of music director Franz Welser-Möst after surgery and initial treatment for cancer, and it was good to see him looking well if, understandably, a little tired. It also marked his first appearance after announcing the end date for his quarter-century adventure as captain of this esteemed ship. Just days before the concert, Welser-Möst said that he will depart as Cleveland’s music director in 2027, at which point he will have had the longest tenure in the orchestra’s history, with twenty-five years at the helm.

That ride did not start smoothly: the conductor needed time to find his way of communicating with the players to achieve a distinctive style. The richly colored sound under previous music director Christoph von Dohnányi was deeply ingrained, but Welser-Möst worked to make the orchestra sleeker in sound, later redeveloping the sense of color but within the litheness that has become their trademark under his leadership.

Along the way, Welser-Möst had to tangle with a hostile critic very devoted to the old style; and with his own baggage as a musician who had been forced to develop in the spotlight with an ill-advised run as music director of the London Philharmonic before he was thirty years old. Learning the repertory as you are presenting it is unforgiving and, despite certain moments of brilliance (such as his live LPO recording of Bruckner’s Fifth – thirty years on, still a classic), Welser-Möst was nagged by detractors who called him subpar. After nearly leaving the business, he soldiered on and gradually rebuilt his career, and his time in Cleveland has been a key pillar. Challenging himself to grow as an artist and re-envision his concept of musical works has led to a late flowering that has been fascinating to witness. Now sixty-three, Welser-Möst is well-situated to have one of those grand late careers as a music sage, like Günter Wand or Herbert Blomstedt. ‘Frankly Worse Than Most’ is beginning to sound ‘Frankly Wiser Than Most’.

Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in the livestream

The audience’s welcome suggests that many in Cleveland are grateful for the maestro’s time here and will always be glad to see him return. A key reason is the way that he continues to stretch the repertory and find new ways to juxtapose pieces. While this concert brought together works that are in some ways very different, they do have many connections. Austrian composer Ernst Krenek began as a fervent disciple of the great Gustav Mahler, even marrying one of Mahler’s daughters. When Mahler’s widow, Alma, looked around for potential composers to finish her husband’s sketch for a Tenth Symphony, she proposed it to her son-in-law. After looking over the score, Krenek declined, already sensing that he would never be able to match Mahler at his own game, and precipitating the dramatic stylistic shift that he would soon undergo, turning both neoclassical and hypermodern, and incorporating American jazz into his work.

Krenek’s Kleine Symphonie is his (miniature) magnum opus from this phase of his career. He had written quasi-Mahlerian giant symphonies but now turned to one of less than twenty minutes to encapsulate a new vision. It starts with a slow but inquisitive introduction that leads into an angular, neo-Baroque main theme. The orchestra is small – most of the middle strings are replaced with a continuo group of mandolins, guitars and banjos providing bright dabs of color. One can hear the influence of both older styles and new voices such as Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók, along with sassy flecks of jazz. The styles become more integrated as it develops, representing the kind of racial mixing that led the Nazis to ban Krenek’s music. Witty and attractive, it was in sure hands with Welser-Möst, who enjoyed the comical moments without exaggerating them, while also respecting the underlying seriousness. It is no accident that he would champion a little-known piece like this at a time of political and social tension worldwide.

While Krenek ended up declining to attempt performing Mahler’s Tenth, he did help present versions of the first and third movements. Interestingly, despite making those connections explicit in the program, the orchestra apparently did not use the Krenek edition of the Adagio, which they had done when George Szell recorded the movements with the Clevelanders back in the 1960s. But the differences between Krenek’s edition and modern versions are minor. What was far more important was the organic unfolding of Welser-Möst’s performance. Unhurried but never dragging, the music flowed out in one breath, all tempos closely integrated to avoid jagged gear shifts. It is fascinating enough to listen to this orchestra play the music but watching it in a high-quality livestream gave the additional opportunity to watch the players and conductor interact. The musicians watch their conductor and each other far more than most ensembles do, and they listen, constantly integrating and interrelating what is being played. Welser-Möst let the famous nine-note scream of a chord at the climax speak for itself, without dramatic milking, which suits the intimate feel of this performance. But it would be wrong to describe it as cold, for the connections of the players fueled a lyrical warmth that was touching. In typical style, the conductor did not linger over the later pages of the Adagio, quietly restoring serenity by the plain-spoken ending.

The string-dominated textures of the Mahler provided a surprisingly easy bridge to the Bartók. This arrangement was originally planned between composer Stanley Konopka and Welser-Möst, but it was blocked by the composer’s son, Peter Bartók. After he passed away, Konopka proposed renewing the delayed project, and this arrangement for double string orchestra was the result. Peter Bartók need not have worried: the arrangement gives it a different feel, of course, but the uncompromising music is not dissipated. Konopka’s arrangement opens with the principal violins, viola and cello – the original string quartet, in other words. The rest of the strings enter on the first forte, a startling effect that suddenly rips the quartet from its usual intimate world into something on a cosmic scale. The arrangement then goes back and forth between the intimacy of quartet moments and the resonant ripples of the full string ensemble, including bass viols doubling some of the cello bass lines. I must admit that I was dubious before hearing the arrangement, but I was completely won over, not least because of the vaunted, chamber-like approach of the Cleveland strings, listening, reacting and cohering so closely. There will always be a place for the original intimate quartet, and certainly a full string ensemble cannot move as quickly or nimbly as a quartet or the musical ideas get blurred. But given its nearly epic space, the work asserts its genius in a different way.

Last, but far from least, was Welser-Möst’s rendition of the suite from Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, long in his repertory. It finally brought that extra spark to the conductor’s eyes that long-time followers will recognize with delight. While Welser-Möst did not push the lurid side of this provocative piece, he didn’t pull his punches either, calling on the trombone section to lead with gleaming flair. He finally relaxed his reserve and let the entire Cleveland Orchestra build up a tremendous head of steam, bringing the audience to its feet. It was a vital moment, one that portends well for the remaining time of the conductor’s tenure.

The audio and video were exemplary as streamed on the orchestra’s site.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

1 thought on “Franz Welser-Möst returns to Cleveland, sounding ‘Frankly Wiser Than Most’”

  1. Overall it was a fine program. Those wanting more emotional depth and feeling are not going to find it with this conductor. Maybe FWM is in the Haitink category of conductors in this respect, but the Dutch master certainly had a more consistent career path.

    About 5 years after he became MD in Cleveland, I went to a season opening concert. The main work was Tchaikovsky 6th. It was brisk and efficient, and only memorable in the tepid audience response at the end, not even called back for one bow afterwards. Since this was a Thursday performance, one cannot blame the conductor’s tangle with a hostile music critic because the review hadn’t been written yet. Other critics were not enthusiastic either about the appointment (one from Pittsburgh remarked that the emperor has no clothes). So the reaction was not isolated to one critic in Cleveland. I suppose there was no way to put pressure on editors to have critics not based in Cleveland fired.

    It’s regrettable that some have to poke at Cleveland’s rich artistic past to shore up the current offering. Comparing FWM’s tenure length to Szell’s is a frequent observation, and seems a bit lacking in substance. Szell died while MD, and left behind a remarkable legacy. Many of his recordings are still among the best. Moreover, compare FWM recent Tchaikovsky 4th to the Maazel on Telarc. Both are a bit cool, but the former sounds a bit choppy and unconvincing in comparison. Sill, superb woodwinds and exciting finale in the FWM version, but not one I will return to.


Leave a Comment