CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF 11/06/08
Olivier Messiaen: Sept haïkaï—esquisses Japonaises. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mass in C minor ("Great"), K. 427. (Joela Jones, p.; Malin Hartelius, sop.; Isabel Leonard, m-s.; Rufus Müller, ten.; Christopher Feigum, bar.; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
My grade-school teachers made the haiku sound so very simple. Five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, and bang, you were a poet, in less time than it took to calculate the length of a hypotenuse. It was only later that I learned just how rich this compact form actually was. "To read properly a single haiku," wrote R.H. Blyth, "requires years of unconscious absorption of all the culture of India, China and Japan…."
So most of us born on this side of the globe will never fully understand haiku. But that hasn't prevented the form from enriching our culture. Ezra Pound...T.E. Hulme...Cid Corman: the list of Western writers who learned from haiku is a distinguished one. And this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts remind us that the form's influence extends beyond poetry into other art forms as well.
The exhibit at hand is Olivier Messiaen's Seven Haiku—a set of "Japanese sketches" that the Cleveland Orchestra and Pierre Boulez recorded back in 1996. And if I found Thursday's live performance of the work under Franz Welser-Möst less than ideal, it's largely due to that pretty-much impeccable CD. Listen to the results Boulez elicits in the orchestral sections of the "Yamanaka-cadenza," for example. Each component of that bustle of birdsong seems vividly colored and preternaturally clear, as if the whole were a Max Ernst painting set in sound. Welser-Möst has at his disposal the same orchestra and the same solo pianist—Joela Jones—but the result seems comparatively vague.
But one hates to complain when the second half of the weekend's program is a top-flight performance of some of the most enthralling music Mozart ever wrote: the so-called "Great" Mass in C Minor. This is a big-orchestra, big-chorus version of music that responds well to such a treatment. Soprano Malin Hartelius positions herself just to the operatic side of the sacred-secular continuum. Her version of "Et incarnatus est is beautifully shaped. And her voice blends well with that of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. The excellent vocal quartet is completed by Rufus Müller and Christopher Feigum, who have relatively little to do but do it very well.
I was intrigued by Franz Welser-Möst's sprightly "Credo," in which the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus seemed to magnify "I believe" into "I rejoice because I believe." But I was even more impressed by Welser-Möst's approach to the "Qui tollis," which emphasized the jagged abruptness of the string gestures beneath the choral line.
One of the attractions of the haiku for those Western poets I mentioned was its economy of means. Ezra Pound wrote that great art is characterized by "maximum efficiency of expression." Welser-Möst's "Qui tollis" is a welcome reminder of Mozart's command of economy—and of just how much power you can muster using a lot of empty space.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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