CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 1/15/09
György Ligeti: Atmosphères. Claude Debussy: Nuages. Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3. Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64. (Radu Lupu, p.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
There was a time when people were pretty certain that there were dragons living in the Alps. Among the exhibits in Lucerne's Natural History Museum is a tennis-ball sized stone, weirdly colored in brown and tan, that is said to have been dropped by a 15th-century dragon flying between two Swiss mountain peaks. Three hundred years later, the scholar Johann Jacob Scheuchzer methodically catalogued sightings of Alpine dragons. Within the century, explorers would begin to penetrate the Alps and dispel a bit of their mystery. But if the dragons were gone by the early twentieth century, plenty of storms and thickets and glaciers remained to challenge the intrepid hiker portrayed in Richard Strauss' massive Alpine Symphony.
Franz Welser-Möst doesn't get too caught up in the purely pictorial aspects of Strauss' music. And in a concert setting that's generally a good thing. In some performances, the Alpine Symphony—like Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote—can seem a disjointed series of sonic illustrations. Listening to such an interpretation is like hearing a Carl Stalling score without watching the Bugs Bunny cartoon to which it was attached. It can be a fascinating experience, but you can't really call it aesthetically complete. Thursday's superb Alpine Symphony with Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra made a solid case for the work as a musical whole—whether you felt inclined to keep track of the piece's 22 narrative sections or not.
The performance that preceded the Alpine Symphony looked on paper like it ought to be one of the highlights of the season: one of the world's great pianists playing an audience-friendly twentieth-century concerto with a conductor who has proven a sympathetic partner. Alas, the marvelous Bartók Third Piano Concerto I had hoped for was not to be. Perhaps it was fate. The cell phone that interrupted Bartók's Adagio religioso could not have chosen a worse time to start ringing. But Radu Lupu's interpretation had begun to go amiss long before that. The opening Allegretto sounded oddly labored, paced at a slightly ponderous tempo whose exact pulse seemed a matter of some uncertainty. A comparison with, say, Géza Anda's classic 1959 recording of this work will show you how this music can sparkle—and illustrate, too, what was lacking on Thursday night.
What you might very broadly call meteorology-themed music—Debussy's "Nuages," or "Clouds," and György Ligeti's Atmosphères—opened the concert. Atmosphères, with its delicately controlled orchestral dynamics, should be one of the highlights of the Orchestra's upcoming Carnegie Hall appearances. Welser-Möst's "Nuages" has a precision and clarity you don't always hear in Debussy performances. These clouds are not generalized haze, but chilly, sculpted forms treading the sky, rendered with the sort of detail you might see from 6000 feet. It's not an inappropriate approach for a composer who once vowed to write music for the age of the airplane.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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