The first of three nights from The Cleveland Orchestra featured its ever-capable musicians, a soloist whose best moments came portraying a desperate soul gloriously on her way—hopefully—to a better place and a conductor who was as cool—initially—as the slow-to-warm audience.
The fly in this largely Viennese ointment (Franz Schubert and Alban Berg composed the program; albeit Franz Liszt orchestrated the three songs) was Franz Welser-Möst’s (himself an Austrian) penchant for following the tune and letting the inner voices fall (or hide) where they may.
Last things first: When encore time rolled around, how curiously informative to say a first adieu to the Ohio ensemble with the same work (Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal) that served as the calling card for the City of Birmingham orchestra just 10 days ago (cross-reference below).
While the edge must go to the latest rendition, neither maestro (Andris Nelsons was at the helm on August 16) was able to make the breathtaking music come together convincingly. Breathing with the players would help immeasurably, but the Royal jelly for feeding togetherness is ensuring that all moving parts (melody or not) coalesce—the resultant whole will drive the audience into an emotional frenzy instead of wondering how soon the BIG moment (so much easier to cobble together; marred pitch and perfect timing are less readily apparent) will arrive.
Back to the beginning: Schubert’s Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (an underperformed gem worthy of more outings) was all theme: little inner workings brought out of their shells. Once the drama of the opening “Adagio molto” receded, the second violins and violas were relegated to the back benches, leaving their engaging bits of business so far from the action that only critics and long-suffering musicologists would notice, much less complain.
The “Andante” was too fast—Schubert’s magical walk through A-flat major became a hurried stroll: no flowers savoured along the way. Likewise the “Menuetto” (vivace=lively, not reckless) shot by with little time to truly phrase the edgy lines. Happily, the transition into the “Trio” managed to relax, producing the best moments of the entire work.
The tempo for the final “Allegro” was spot-on perfect to these grizzled ears but the subtext in the undergrowth leading to and through some marvels of modulation must remain to be discovered on another day.
The arrival of soprano Christine Shäfer was as welcome as spring rain. No matter what the order (the printed program became 2, 3, 1), her ability to dig deep into the text and coax her voice to follow suit (only the opening of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” gave any cause for concern) made these three songs a pleasure at every turn.
After the pause, the coolest Lulu in the world settled onto the stage and soon had the habitual coughers croaking like frogs (the more the bronchially-challenged are moved the less they involuntarily “protest,” methinks).
The rapture and angst—once again—became the victims of unharvested detail. Happily, when Lulu/Shäfer took stage, and—later again—loft heaven, Berg’s magic was rekindled and provided more pleasurable moments than just the ear-popping climaxes which Welser-Möst and his intrepid band delivered so magnificently.
Here’s hoping that tomorrow’s Bruckner goes much deeper in search of its incredibly important inner voices. JWR
DGG 423 238-2
London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado
Margaret Price, soprano
Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra make an ideal team to serve up Berg’s incredibly dense, deep, despairing “highlight” reel from the opera. Having Margaret Price on hand to bring the brief soprano interventions to life is the rich icing on this multilayered cake of doomed love. (Only Teresa Stratas, who created the role for the Paris Opera eight years later, might top this gritty rendition.) Especially effective is the leap of an “angel” before perfectly returning to mortal Earth in the closing “Grave.”
The haunting, lush orchestration (employing the vibraphone—deftly framing “Lulu’s Song”— adds a distinctly “unworldly” air; the sultry alto saxophone is at one with the aura of prostitution and the daily gambles of existence) is the fuel which drives the “Introduction and Hymn.” Following a midpoint rare moment of consonance, the music becomes more restless than ever, unable to sit still (and inadvertently producing a few bits of untidy ensemble, never to be felt again).
The recording engineers have managed to capture the terrifically wide range of colours and hitherto unbelievable decibel count, after the menacing snare oozes its way into the “Finale” mix and the tortured strings fall eerily quiet, the truly spectacular explosions of sound that follow (replete with mocking, dissonant brass) perfectly portray Lulu’s last moments of hell on the planet. Sadly, the microphones are so “close” to the winds that the flute and clarinet are too present and the frantic a-musical gusts of air employed to remove tone-threatening drops of accumulated saliva unwontedly become part of the otherwise magnificent whole.
It’s a performance that needs to be on any serious collector’s shelf. JWR