CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 1/8/09
Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder. Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60 ("Leningrad"). (Measha Brueggergosman, sop.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
Stories of angels interacting with mortals can be tricky to handle. Consider Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire. To my mind, it's one of the most moving and poetic religious films ever made. The cinematography is so beautiful that, when I visited Germany eight years after the movie's release, I made a special point of visiting the Berlin State Library, where some of the most striking scenes were shot. In 1998, the movie was remade in Hollywood as City of Angels, with Nicholas Cage cast in the role created by the great German actor Bruno Ganz. So it is that a good idea goes bad.
This weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts bear witness to the reverse process. In the mid-nineteenth century, a writer named Mathilde Wesendonck attracted the attentions of Richard Wagner, and he set five of her overwrought poems to music. The first one treats, yes, an angel offering the succor of immortality to an anguished human. The resulting song cycle, known as the Wesendonck Lieder, is something rather special-especially when it's performed by as sensitive a soprano as Measha Brueggergosman, who tackles the cycle with the Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst.
Brueggergosman brings that first poem to life without a trace of mawkishness. And she's even more impressive in the cycle's second song, "Stehe still!" She renders the first half with plenty of power, but in the contrasting second half, there's a sense of private, intimate communication that transcends Wesendonck's words. By the time Brueggergosman sings the phrase "in staunendem Schweigen," her voice is almost a whisper. But, with the self-awareness of a great actress, she stops just short of overdoing things. It's a perfectly calibrated performance that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the vocal arts.
The second half of the program is occupied by Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7—the "Leningrad." The recording of this work that tends to stick in many listeners' minds is a 1988 CD with Leonard Bernstein and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Franz Welser-Möst's "Leningrad" is in some respects the polar opposite of Bernstein's. While Bernstein is epic, Welser-Möst is often efficient and brisk. His players sounded a bit harried in the Scherzo—especially when it came time for the E-flat clarinet solo a hundred bars into the movement. But otherwise Thursday's performance was an orchestral spectacular, ranging from the amazing pianissimo at the outset of Shostakovich's quirky "Colonel Bogey Meets Boléro" march to the work's ear-crunching climaxes, complete with brass players blaring away from Severance's top balcony.
There's much to be said, too, for such details as Welser-Möst's treatment of the opening movement's second theme. Instead of Bernstein's lush romanticism, Welser-Möst gives us something more ambiguous and perhaps deeper. When juxtaposed with the angel of the Wesendonck Lieder, the passage's ambivalence reminded me of an exchange in Wings of Desire. A angel-turned-man asks Peter Falk to explain everything there is to know about being human. "You need to figure that out for yourself," Falk replies. "That's the fun of it."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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