by Nicholas Stevens
The sun is shining, the leaves regenerating — and something wonderfully alive is stirring in Severance Hall. The Cleveland Orchestra billed its programs on April 12 and 13 as “sneak previews” of the concert cycles that close its 100th season: windows into the ensemble’s preparations for The Ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde and The Prometheus Project.
The first of these two preview programs bodes well for the Prometheus series, which incorporates all nine Beethoven symphonies as well as four overtures. However, it was also stunning as a concert in its own right. On April 12, the Orchestra demonstrated its ability to snap from Beethoven’s dour, grave moods to rollicking activity without lag, sweeping listeners along with tidal force.
The Coriolan Overture consists of three distinct parts that return in cycles: a severe opening passage, a prickly first melody, and a second theme that promises peace but promptly falls apart. Franz Welser-Möst had a remarkably clear vision for the work, integrating each gesture into a coherent arc. The halting introductory music loomed over the rest of the piece, a question in want of an answer. The dark, astringent pool of harmony that the players created just before the final cadence made affirmation an impossibility.
Symphony No. 8, by contrast, opened with a burst of radiance and a swaying dance feeling that lasted throughout the first movement. The Allegretto scherzando, with its pristine woodwind chirping and occasional snarls from the basses, points the way forward to Tchaikovsky and Mahler. Though the opening of the Menuetto could have used somewhat more bite, hornists Michael Mayhew and Jesse McCormick and principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf nailed the trio section. In the finale, the violins sounded magical from the first. Welser-Möst paced the movement’s progress with an ear toward both variety of material and grand sweep.
The evening’s true tour de force arrived in the form of Symphony No. 5. With its doubled winds, the Orchestra looked massive when it returned after intermission. If this seemed to presage bloat in the performance to come, the iconic first notes of the Symphony dispelled that concern in an instant. In Welser-Möst’s hard-charging interpretation, the familiar Fifth roared to life with a terrific freshness.
Playing at the front of the beat, the violists and cellists pressed ever forward through a vital, sunny rendition of the Andante, and Yusuf once again graced his solo lines with enchanting tone. Having kept the closing moments of the Scherzo whisper-soft, Welser-Möst pumped the gas pedal in the transition to the finale, at last revealing why he had chosen to double every woodwind part. Contrabassoonist Jonathan Sherwin added edge and heft to bass lines, cutting through even the thickest textures. After sitting silent for the first three movements, the trombones helped propel the Orchestra toward a thrilling, final acceleration.
The Orchestra has built a fair amount of marketing around its Beethoven cycle, from Promethean imagery to program notes full of age-old tropes of individual heroism. However, the true marvel of this concert was the way in which these musicians, their visions and movements aligned, became a higher life form of infinite grace and power. Prometheus may have stolen fire and given it to humanity, but building a world with that fire has been a team effort ever since. Hats off to an Orchestra that is, by any account, on fire this April.
Photo: Roger Mastroianni.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com April 16, 2018.
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