CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF 5/22/08
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 40, K. 550. Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3. Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. (Mitsuko Uchida, p.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
A year and a half after his 250th birthday celebrations, Mozart continues to make the headlines. The most recent source of controversy is director Christoph Hagel's version of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which is being performed through this weekend in a Berlin subway station. In Hagel's production, Papageno is homeless and welfare-dependent, the Queen of the Night is attended by cleaning women who morph into dominatrices, and the Queen herself is, at the opera's conclusion, flattened by a high-speed train.
Franz Welser-Möst returns to Severance Hall this week fresh from his own tussle with an eccentric director. He recently pulled out of a pair of Zürich Opera performances, reportedly because he was unhappy that Michael Sturminger had somehow incorporated Dracula's castle into Die Fledermaus. There's no word on what he makes of Hagel's Magic Flute. He might well be thankful that the Mozart he's conducting at this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts doesn't require a director's services.
The Mozart at hand is the 40th symphony, famously dismissed by Glenn Gould as "Eight remarkable measures...surrounded by a half-hour of banality." Occasional technical faults were almost the only shortcomings in this account of what, despite Gould's dismissal, remains one of classical music's greatest hits. But even some ragged horn playing—all too often a feature of Thursday nights this year—didn't greatly detract from Welser-Möst's bracing and (except for the second movement) briskly paced version of Mozart's penultimate symphony.
Mitsuko Uchida joined the orchestra after intermission for the Bartók Third Piano Concerto, and I was curious to see how the fastidious, microengineered Mozart playing so familiar to Severance audiences would stand up under Bartók's very different demands. In roughly the first ten bars of the concerto, Uchida sounded fussy and overrefined. But in very short order she seemed to become more stylistically attuned to the music. She played the second movement with an attractive degree of austerity, and her account of the finale was downright exhilarating. If Uchida doesn't equal, say, the great Géza Anda in her command of Bartók's idiom, she offers an invigorating alternative.
Berg's Opus 6 Three Pieces for Orchestra concluded Thursday's program. The Orchestra's website bizarrely describes this emotionally shattering music as a "sonic sorbet," which is akin to calling Anna Karenina beach reading. But Welser-Möst's performance of this music combined marvelous transparency with brute emotional force. His reading doesn't envelop the music in a late-Romantic haze, but you're nevertheless acutely aware of the powerful gravitational pull of Viennese musical tradition on Berg's writing.
When Glenn Gould condemned Mozart's 40th symphony, the single passage he excepted was the famous modulation at the beginning of the fourth-movement development. He termed it "the spot where Mozart reaches out to greet the spirit of Anton Webern." At this weekend's concerts, Alban Berg is the member of the Second Viennese School hailed by Mozart. I, for one, am glad to have witnessed their meeting.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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