What a great privilege it must be for any conductor to stand before The Cleveland Orchestra and make music.
Given the first two programs of this orchestra’s Lucerne sojourn, it’s safe to report that the collective sheen, depth and pitch of the violins is high up the scale of the top ten orchestras on the planet. The violas, perched on the outside, shine equally well when in the spotlight even as the cellos and double basses provide a solid foundation that would happily astound such composers as Anton Bruckner (whose 8th Symphony comprised the second offering) if he could hear them today.
The woodwinds are also accomplished with—so far: Debussy’s Prélude de l-après midi d’un faune follows tomorrow—principal oboe Frank Rosenwein delivering the most distinguished contributions.
As a group, the brass make a glorious team with only a slight edginess from the trumpets (admittedly just in the late going of an embouchure-challenging second night) and less than perfect pitch when some of the French horns morphed into their tenor tuba cousins (notably at the close of the mystical “Adagio”). Special mention to principal horn Richard King who soared to the top of the class or quietly egged the violins on with a seemingly innocent two-note call that is at the heart of the “Scherzo.”
Timpanist Paul Yancich has a velvety roll-critical touch in the quiet “glue” required for many of Bruckner’s transitions and an impressive vertical punch when asked for by conductor Franz Welser-Möst. The percussionists’ small role in the C Minor Symphony (1887 version) was also dutifully rendered (more of their skills were enjoyed 24 hours earlier in Alban Berg’s Orchestral Suite from Lulu).
The pair of harps matched each other beautifully and were readily able to insert their shimmer and delectable changes of harmony without the necessity of cues from the podium. (Concertmaster William Preucil literally took matters into his own hands and body, ensuring that many of the string attacks and phrase endings were together.)
In short, the combined efforts of the Clevelanders made the quality of sound the true highlight of their second concert.
For those who love a heavy dose of decibel-laden explosiveness and string tone that grips the aural imagination with every stroke, then this was a performance to savour.
For others, the sonic excellence was certainly a plus, but the ~90 minutes of incredibly passionate, personal expression was more left to past experience than the mighty result that filled the concert hall.
The overarching problem is easily summed up: action not fuelling/inciting reaction.
Much has been made of the fact that Bruckner’s background as an organist largely informs his orchestral works (some bemoan his orchestration techniques, yet who else sounds like Bruckner? or Schumann …).
Still, if—for the sake of argument—one imagines the beer-lover’s orchestra as a fully stopped ensemble of pipes, then how might a conductor work the manuals and pedals and produce just what was originally imagined?
For Welser-Möst the joy of his Austrian countryman lies in the vast swaths of colour on every page. Watching his gestures—with one important caveat in a moment—provides the listener with a road map of the major lines and ongoing tempi. The players, too, see the same arms. What’s missing are the countless action/reaction moments where conductors really earn their keep.
Having the courage to start important lines then shepherd the harmonic shifts, counterparts and punctuation around them can have the extraordinary effect of bringing the music to life much as the composer intended. If, for example, a four-bar tremolo in the violins changes pitch just prior to a woodwind solo, then signalling the former before inviting the latter could well create a cause-and-effect that assures seamless entries and dramatic effect.
Cuing the launch of a big brass chorale then merely beating time achieves “the loud” (at the minimum the composer’s dynamic markings are observed) but without zeroing in on, say, a quarter-note inner voice (largely surrounded by wholes and halves) that drives to the real goal; neither the set-up nor the impact are fully realized.
Adopting this sort of podium approach is a lot of work, yet the rewards would be repaid endlessly.
Unwanted visual distraction:
We are two concerts into this three-program set, so let’s have the courage to say this: unless Welser-Möst has some sort of physical balance problem, leaning on the waist-high podium rail for much of any performance sends the wrong message. The, er, rear view frequently reveals the tailcoat fabric bouncing along in time (more or less) with the beat. But it’s a distraction that also telegraphs (unintentionally, one hopes) indifference to the art being performed, the stellar musicians executing it and the devoted patrons.
In a very simplistic sense (as recently witnessed in Atlanta—cross-reference below) orchestras such as Cleveland’s could give an acceptable reading of most repertoire without benefit of “direction.” That’s all the more reason for those such as Welser-Möst who are entrusted with their care to provide their talented charges much more of the music; much less of beating time. If that were to become the norm again, then the next golden age of orchestral greatness (last seen and heard in the ‘60’s to the ‘80s) might well be upon us. JWR