CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 15 OCTOBER 2009
Jörg Widmann: Chor. Johannes Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (Nicole Cabell, sop.; Russell Braun, bar.; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
There was a time when enjoying both Brahms and Wagner would have been seen as dangerously inconsistent, like reading both DC and Marvel comics; or rooting for both Ohio State and Michigan on the day of The Game; or owning two motorcycles, one a Honda and one a Harley-Davidson. George Bernard Shaw was an enthusiastic Wagnerite. And some of his liveliest criticisms of Brahms were prompted by the German Requiem, which he dismissed as music that "is patiently borne only by the corpse." In another review, he damned the Requiem with a backhanded compliment, calling it "a solid piece of music manufacture. You feel at once that it could only have come from the establishment of a first-class undertaker."
One wonders if he'd have been a bit less hostile toward the work if he had heard this Thursday's performance by the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. In Franz Welser-Möst's interpretation, there's little that's dispiriting about the German Requiem. Tempos seem slightly on the quick side, but the music retains plenty of room to breathe. This Requiem has a particularly pastoral feel. And that accords nicely with the work's text, which emphasizes consolation rather than anguish or final judgment.
Welser-Möst enjoys the services of two admirable soloists. There are hints of preciosity in soprano Nicole Cabell's "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit," one verse of which was unaccountably absent from the program booklet. Fortunately, the gracile beauty of her voice compensated for both shortcomings. Baritone Russell Braun doesn't have the power or dramatic heft of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or George London, who appeared on a couple of the most compelling recordings of the 50s and 60s. But his low-key approach fits in well with Welser-Möst's conducting.
This weekend's concerts introduce the Requiem with music by Jörg Widmann. Like some medieval scientist who toys simultaneously with chemistry and alchemy, astronomy and astrology, Widmann doesn't always seem able to distinguish profitable directions of enquiry from just-plain-silliness. How else to explain his Cello Concerto, in which a good deal of accomplished and expressive writing is undone by a ludicrous Finale (complete with a pair of shrieking sopranos) that leaves no self-indulgence unindulged?
Chor, which receives its Cleveland Orchestra premiere this weekend, occupies a place among the better of the Widmann pieces I've heard. It bears the evidence of impressive concentration-both on the part of the composer, who accumulates and releases energy with precision a mechanical engineer might admire, and of the Orchestra, which has to navigate sometimes subtle, sometimes violent transitions of timbre and mood. If somewhat overlong, it is an engaging exercise—though it hardly justifies the composer's claim that it is "a hundred-fold affirmation, a lament, a cry of happiness." Chor doesn't warrant such grandiose puffery. But its genuine merits ensure that it can do just fine without it.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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