by Daniel Hathaway
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’s last symphony and Richard Strauss’s last tone poem — though he called it a symphony — were splendid choices for the opening concert of The Cleveland Orchestra’s new season last Thursday evening, September 24 at Severance Hall. In these works, both composers were operating at the height of their powers, investing confident brilliance in the “Jupiter” and “Alpine” Symphonies.
Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra fully captured the Apollonian majesty of Mozart’s 41st symphony in a performance distinguished for its spaciousness, elegant phrasing, and noble pacing. In the opening Allegro, Welser-Möst stretched the composer’s pauses to dramatic effect. In the finale, his brisk but well-controlled tempo generated excitement, while still leaving space for all of Mozart’s permutations of its four note theme to ring out boldly through the fugal textures. The orchestra played with special verve and transparency, making this performance a revelation.
It takes a lot of crew and gear to make an assault on Mt. Everest. Richard Strauss’s musical ascent of an un-named Alp is less the record of an expedition than it is the colorful, detail-packed memory of a day trek with friends. But the stage of Severance Hall was filled with extra musicians to simulate the experience of watching night turn into day, entering the woods, walking along the brook, contemplating a waterfall, entering a flowery meadow and a mountain pasture, taking a wrong turn, sliding across a glacier, and finally achieving the summit — then returning amid fog and storm to the Gemütlichkeit of sunset in the village. All of that happens in Strauss’s libretto, and a couple of visions, too. The audience was clued into the stages of the journey through projected supertitles.
The Cleveland Orchestra brass section was in charge of the dramatic effect of the sunrise — beginning at night with low-pitched instruments, eventually building to an explosive radiance — and of the triumphant arrival at the summit. Offstage horns and cowbells added bucolic details as the ascent progressed. Bassoons and pizzicato strings suggested “dangerous moments,” and the bassoons returned to paint the picture of rising fog. The noisy storm called on an expanded percussion section that included a second set of timpani, a wind machine, and a thunder sheet. The organ was heard in several guises, most charmingly to evoke a village church service at the end of the day.
Welser-Möst, a superb opera conductor, treated An Alpine Symphony like the unfolding of a lengthy stage work, pacing it with expert attention to its dramatic ebbs and flows. Fine cello, trombone, trumpet, and horn solos brought Strauss’s music down from panoramic to human scale.
Of all the various subjects Richard Strauss treated in his tone poems, the Alpine theme might evoke the most universal response from listeners. Who doesn’t delight in mountains, or appreciate the awe they inspire in those who climb to the top? This was — along with the “Jupiter” — a lofty way to begin a new season.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com September 28, 2015.
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