CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 5/31/07
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. Josef Strauss: Dynamiden Waltz, Op. 173; Delirien Waltz, Op. 212. Joseph Haydn: Symphony No 48 in C Major ("Maria Theresa"). Johannes Brahms: Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103. (Joela Jones, p.; Robert Porco, cond.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.).
So how do you prevent toothache? In the early 1600s, a popular recommendation was to carry a splinter taken from the fence at the grave of Till Eulenspiegel, the great practical joker of German folklore. And while that remedy probably doesn’t remain in your family medical guide, Till’s popularity continues unabated. You could spend an entire European vacation seeking out sites associated with the jester. There are Eulenspiegel restaurants, Eulenspiegel hotels, an Eulenspiegel museum, and Eulenspiegel fountains. And on your journey you can read, yes, Eulenspiegel magazine—at one time East Germany’s state-sanctioned organ of humor.
If Germany’s not in your summer plans, you might simply head to Severance Hall this weekend to hear Richard Strauss’s version of the story—Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. In many performances, the work is played as very broad comedy. And there are passages in which the temptation to milk its farcical situations must prove almost irresistible. Listen to some versions of the passage around 160 bars into the work in which Till gradually emerges from his hiding place, and you feel like you’re hearing a Looney Tunes score. And while that offers ample room for the imagination, you ultimately regret the missing animation.
But there’s nothing cartoonish about conductor Franz Welser-Möst’s approach to Till Eulenspiegel. He emphasizes the work’s larger arcs rather than its localized comic effects. To what extent, he seems to ask, is Till convincing as absolute rather than program music? Yet that should not be taken to imply that Thursday evening’s Cleveland Orchestra version of Strauss’s tone poem was in any way restrained or buttoned-down. The passage in which Till rides through the women in the market was magnificently raucous. And there were other sections of the work which nearly dissolved into pure rhythm, as if Strauss were anticipating Stravinsky.
The rest of the program was devoted to a selection of music connected with Richard Strauss and the opera Der Rosenkavalier. Joseph Haydn’s “Maria Theresa” Symphony—No. 48—seemed oddly subdued, though the Adagio featured some nicely subtle management of tempo. Johannes Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder—performed by pianist Joela Jones, conductor Robert Porco, and the Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus—would have fared better in a more sympathetic acoustic. While a few of the eleven short songs sounded very good indeed—the broody “Hoch, der Wind klagt” chief among them—others, such as “Lieber Gott, du weißt,” dissolved, when heard from my seat, into a jumble of sibilants. The best of the program’s miscellaneous selections were Josef Strauss’s Delirien and Dynamiden Waltzes. Welser-Möst made the Dynamiden Waltz, in particular, into a piece of unexpected emotional breadth.
After last week’s mishaps, this weekend’s program is a winning return to form for the Cleveland Orchestra. Unlike Eulenspiegel’s fence, it makes no claim to ward off a toothache. But, should you be thus afflicted, it might at least provide a couple hours of diversion from what can, as the old joke says, be a pain that drives you to extraction.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.