CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 11 JANUARY 2007
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah"). Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op 125 (Measha Brueggergosman, sop.; Kelley O'Connor, ms.; Frank Lopardo, ten.; René Pape, b.; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.).
It was Rembrandt who perhaps best captured the moment. In a painting in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, the aged prophet Jeremiah—despairing, resigned, fatigued—sits, head in hand, on the base of a column. At his side are a handful of objects apparently salvaged from the terrifying scene in the background: the fiery obliteration of Jerusalem and of Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
Nearly three centuries after Rembrandt painted his Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, a young Leonard Bernstein addressed the identical subject in his first major work: the "Jeremiah" Symphony, which opens this weekend's concerts by Franz Welser Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra. And though I've been a fan of Bernstein's "Jeremiah" since I first heard it nearly thirty years ago, I usually find its conclusion—a setting for mezzo soprano and orchestra of verses from the Book of Lamentations—considerably less effective than the opening movements. But on Thursday evening it seemed unusually cogent, thanks largely to the excellent performance of vocalist Kelley O'Connor. Bernstein himself recorded "Jeremiah" three times—in 1945, 1961, and 1977. Two of his soloists, Jennie Tourel and Christa Ludwig, bring a portentousness to the movement that, however appropriate to the text, weighs down the music. Bernstein's 1945 version, by contrast, features the lighter voice of a youthful Nan Merriman. Kelley O'Connor's singing has a specific gravity somewhere in the middle—one that serves both text and music with an ideal mix of authority and humanity.
Following Bernstein's doleful "Jeremiah" with the Beethoven Ninth is an unusual choice. And in such company, the Beethoven symphony is likely to recall an altogether different Jeremiah: the oenophilic bullfrog of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World."
There's much to admire in Franz Welser-Möst's approach to the Ninth—and much to question in the execution. The opening bars set the general tone: rapid, streamlined, forceful and efficient rather than atmospheric. As a rule, that's perfectly welcome. Note the way Welser-Möst's unsentimental, detailed account of the slow movement, for example, highlights features such as the texture of clarinets, bassoons, and horns against pizzicato strings in the second variation on the 4/4 Adagio theme. But then there are passages in which speed degenerates into rhythmic shapelessness, or efficiency strips key moments of dramatic impact—as in the fourth-movement return of what Wagner called the "terror fanfare" just before the entrance of the baritone.
But once you reached it, there was nothing routine about René Pape's introductory declamation. And the performance of the Orchestra Chorus and of the rest of the vocal quartet—Kelley O'Connor, tenor Frank Lopardo, and the charismatic Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman—was equally exhilarating. The first fifty minutes of Welser Möst's Ninth left plenty of room for debate. But the final fifteen minutes? Absolutely intoxicating.
Yes, to borrow a phrase from Three Dog Night, that's "some mighty fine wine."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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