October 24, 25, 26
|Back at the podium for too much of a good thing.|
Sometimes, less is more. A small ensemble or a carefully chosen piece can stand in for something much larger. But the opposite is also true: Sometimes, more is less. By the final notes on Saturday night, that was the inescapable conclusion of “Fate and Freedom.”
The title itself hints at the awkward pairing of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Beethoven and Shostakovich festival. Two giants who changed the course of classical music, both engaged with the struggle for liberty and freedom of expression, each the creator of highly personal works – these are obvious and well-known parallels. What Music Director Franz Welser-Möst hoped to achieve by pairing three sets of their symphonies on successive nights was a deeper appreciation of their artistic ties and achievements, and a sense of how great music captures and reflects its times.
Overload is one way to accomplish this, though a fatiguing choice. Any one of the symphonies that Welser-Möst chose (Beethoven Nos. 3, 4 & 5, Shostakovich Nos. 6, 8 & 10) is a lot to absorb and digest. Two is a package that offers interesting contrasts. Six within the space of 72 hours is like going through a museum on roller skates, even with a fat program book that included an enlightening essay by Welser-Möst, smart observations by visiting commentator Frank Oteri, and the usual fine background and analysis for each of the pieces.
More consistent performances that showcased a continuity of ideas would have helped. After three months away from the orchestra, Welser-Möst seemed rusty on opening night, starting with a flaccid Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) that didn’t take on heroic proportions until the final movement. The conductor’s Beethoven is usually delightful – light and nimble yet very dynamic, with room for details to blossom and ideas to develop, carefully balanced between expression and technical finesse. But in this performance the ardor seemed strained, and the message confused. Is heroism a grand ideal? Or a burden? Or a false hope? Despite some fine solo work by individual players, it was hard to tell.
Shotakovich’s Symphony No. 6 poses its own internal challenges, with a long, tense first movement that gives way to animated, even playful second and third movements. Welser-Möst captured the tension very well and maintained a beautiful transparency through the late cacophony, but overall the piece lacked cohesiveness. Were the cheerful second and third movements supposed to ring hollow? Is it all about the censors with Shostakovich, or something deeper? Again, it was hard to tell.
The Friday night concert was the best of the three. From the opening notes, Beethoven No. 4 had what No. 3 lacked – depth, vibrancy, a commanding voice and radiant glow. Welser-Möst wove in dark tones that kept the piece anchored, and conducted with clockwork precision; even the disparate, exuberant elements of the fourth movement were a seamless fit. If the symphony didn’t have much to say about either fate or freedom, it nonetheless offered a revealing portrait of the composer’s personality and musical development.
Welser-Möst’s Shostakovich tends to be less fiery than most, a trait that worked to good effect in No. 8, which the conductor approached as an outcry against the horrors of World War II. Within that framework he crafted fine textures and gradations of sound, soulful solos, and a dazzling range of colors and emotions. The first movement ended like a tone poem, while the second had a reeling, almost dizzying quality, and the third conclusively demonstrated that the Cleveland Orchestra can rock. The concluding movements were like smoke drifting over a battlefield, punctuated by seemingly random, inchoate sounds with an undercurrent of loss and despair. One may or may not agree with Welser-Möst’s interpretation, but it was presented with clarity and conviction.
The Saturday concert drew a sellout crowd, largely on the appeal of Beethoven No. 5, which offered the most heartfelt performance. Welser-Möst’s Beethoven is always textbook-clean and elegantly understated. This piece also had a rich emotional warmth and air of nobility that put it more squarely in the thematic frame of the festival, reflecting the composer’s determination not to let his encroaching deafness dim his highest aspirations. It was the most economical and yet most powerful of the Beethoven symphonies.
Shostakovich No. 10 is a technical tour de force that Welser-Möst painted on a broad canvas, ranging from an almost docile introduction to some of the most incendiary passages of the entire festival. The first movement was so delicately done, with low murmurs weaving a hypnotic spell before rising to dissonant flashes, that there was an audible exhale of breath in the audience when it finished. The slicing strings of the second movement and repeating motifs of the third turned up the burners, which were muted for a bright, nuanced finale. Perhaps less despairing than Welser-Möst intended, it was still a remarkable synthesis of the composer’s hopes and fears.
So what did we learn? Essentially, that these two towering figures shared similar passions heavily shaped by their eras and circumstances. The contrasts were interesting and the occasional points of intersection revealing, though not with any remarkable new insights. Mostly, it was an opportunity to hear Shostakovich pieces that don’t get performed nearly as often as they deserve.
But then, audiences come out for Beethoven, not Shostakovich. So as a marketing move, it was brilliant. And a successful exercise in tempting fate.
For more on the festival: http://www.clevelandorchestra.com/event-detail/2013-Oct-24-TCO.aspx?pid=11052
Photo by Roger Mastroianni