CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 1 OCTOBER 2009
F. Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 85 in B-flat major ("La Reine"). Richard Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 (Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
When Franz Welser-Möst was interviewed in advance of his 2006 appearance on Great Performances, he was asked what projects he'd like to undertake with the Cleveland Orchestra. "I would love," he answered, "to hear them play Tristan und Isolde one day."
The answer should not, perhaps, have been completely unexpected. Wagner's opera had played a dramatic role in Welser-Möst's career back in 2003, when Christian Thielemann unexpectedly pulled out of the Vienna State Opera's production of the work. Welser-Möst conducted the large, complex score without rehearsal in a pair of performances that were very highly praised.
So far there's no Wagner on the Cleveland Orchestra's opera schedule. But Northeast Ohio can sample a bit of Welser-Möst's Tristan at this weekend's Severance Hall concerts, which feature the popular Prelude and Liebestod. Back in 2003, the Austrian press reported that the running time of Welser-Möst's Tristan was some 20 minutes shorter than Thielemann's had been. So it was no surprise Thursday evening to find that Welser-Möst's Prelude and Liebestod was likewise on the economical side. But this was less noticeable in the pacing-which never seemed forced-than in the somewhat restrained execution of such details as the upward-rushing violins of the Prelude and the seesawing dynamics at the climax of what Wagner called the "Transfiguration." To be sure, the line dividing emotional authenticity from sentimentalism is a subjective one. Oscar Wilde mocked Charles Dickens' wildly popular novel The Old Curiosity Shop, saying, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." Some may wish lips quivered more visibly, tears flowed more hotly in this performance. But to my thinking, Welser-Möst's non-supersized approach to Wagner was very convincing here—as it was in the evening's encore, the Act I Prelude from Lohengrin.
A pair of symphonies made up the balance of Thursday evening's program. Despite a few technical blemishes, Haydn's "La Reine" was perfectly amiable. But Welser-Möst's version of the Shostakovich Fifth was something far more special: an account that was by turns alluring, eerie, provocative, and electrifying. There were countless particulars to savor in this interpretation, from the uncanny sense of stillness with which Welser-Möst invested the exposition of the first movement's opening theme to the splendidly vertiginous feel of the Scherzo.
The symphony should prove an excellent showcase for the Orchestra on their upcoming European outing. And yet, nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, touring with this music—born of the tension between Shostakovich and the Soviet regime—retains a certain poignancy. Shostakovich's son Maxim, who had conducted his father's Fifth in his American debut, used the occasion of a Soviet Radio Symphony Orchestra tour to elude his KGB minders and defect to the West. An old Soviet-era joke asks: What is the definition of a musical duet? A quartet that has just come back from abroad.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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