United States Prokofiev, Webern: The Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Carnegie Hall, New York, 21.1.2024. (RP)
Prokofiev -Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40; Symphony No.5 in B-flat major, Op.100
Webern – Symphony, Op.21
Franz Welser-Möst brought The Cleveland Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for two concerts in as many days. The first was devoted to the music of Krenek, Mahler and Bartók (a livestream of an earlier performance was reviewed here by Mark Sebastian Jordan), and this one to works by Prokofiev and Webern.
The concerts were part of the ‘Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice’ festival which forms the centerpiece of the remainder of Carnegie Hall’s season running from January through May.
It came as no surprise that this Sunday afternoon concert was sold out – The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the finest in the world. The outpouring of affection from the audience that greeted the orchestra and its conductor was, however, special indeed.
The 2023-24 season marks Welser-Möst’s twenty-second with the orchestra. Earlier in January, Welser-Möst announced that he would not renew his contract when it expires in 2027. When he steps off the podium in 2027, he will depart as the orchestra’s longest-serving musical leader since its founding in 1918. Physical ailments over the past year, including back pain and the removal of a cancerous tumor, have undoubtedly played a role in his decision to leave.
Welser-Möst does not court the limelight, either as a conductor or a person. Social media and flashy movements on the podium are not his style. Even by his strict standards, however, his entry on the stage was subdued and his movements on the podium equally so. Not that it mattered a whit: the orchestra responded to his every wish and crafted a performance of exceptional caliber.
Prokofiev’s Symphony No.2 premiered in Paris in 1925 and fits squarely into the years of the Weimar Republic (the name given to Germany’s government from 1919 to 1939). During this period, from Germany’s defeat in World War I to the rise of Adolf Hitler, the arts flourished in Berlin and elsewhere. The flowering of various Post-Expressionist styles, many with their hard-edged realism and brutal depiction of the mechanical age, would later be denounced by the Nazis as degenerate, with its creators fleeing Germany or perishing in death camps.
Prokofiev left Russia in 1918 and would spend most of the following years in Paris, which was another hotbed of the avant-garde. In his Second Symphony, he was influenced stylistically by Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor and Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, which was inspired by the Swiss composer’s enthusiasm for trains. The influence of the former is seen in terms of structure, while the latter is reflected in the score’s ‘brilliant and tough’ orchestration, in the composer’s words.
Prokofiev described the massive first movement as being of ‘iron and steel’, with the brutality of the industrial state reflected in the clockwork precision of its rhythmic structure. The thunder of the lower woodwinds and brass contribute to the movement’s diabolical mania. Yet over the ominous growling of the orchestra, moments of sublime beauty emerge, as when the trumpets infuse a melody with lyricism and beauty. The glassine sheen produced by the violins, likewise, was a wonder. It ended with Welser-Möst seeming to capture the sound of the final notes in the cup of his hand.
In the second movement, Frank Rosenwein played the serene theme with an astonishing sweetness of tone. There were moments of stunning tranquility, with the orchestra achieving an luminous transparency that made the complex sonorities that followed – ominous thundering from the lower brass and strings, machine-gun-like outbursts from the snare drum, overwhelming force from the orchestra playing en masse – even more terrifying.
Webern took the symphonic form to its opposite extreme in his two-movement work which lasts a mere ten minutes. Completed in 1928, it was his first twelve-tone orchestra work. The size of the orchestra for which Webern wrote is as compact as the symphony’s structure, requiring only strings (without double basses), harp, clarinet, bass clarinet and two horns.
Precision is a given with Welser-Möst, but the charm of this reading of Webern’s Symphony was what impressed the most. Passages emerged that were light and playful, demonstrating the remarkable intimacy between conductor and orchestra. The violin playing was exquisite.
The final work, Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5, dates from the final months of the Second World War in the European theater. Its premiere in Moscow on 13 January 1945 came days after a Soviet victory over the Germans in the last battle of the war fought on Russian soil. It is soaring music, uplifting in spirit and fueled by patriotism, and it found immediate popularity with both Soviet and American audiences weary of war.
Welser-Möst began the first movement by drawing a gentle bloom of orchestra sound. There was more a sense of repose than triumph as the movement progressed, exemplified by the soothing, calm playing of the cellos, with a violent cymbal crash interrupting the reverie. By contrast, the second movement was fleet and urgent, played with the same mechanical precision heard in the Second Symphony.
The slow movement was notable for the sweeping melodies Welser-Möst drew from the orchestra, especially from the strings. Afendi Yusuf played its engaging solos with sweetness of tone and the requisite flare. The finale had its lighter moments and even a bit of humor, but it was the emotionally charged concluding measures of the coda that brought the audience to its feet.