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30.8.08

Ionarts at Large: Cleveland Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival

The chill of the surrounding rock in the refreshingly cool and coolly lit Felsenreitschule necessitated a fastening of shawls and pashminas. With a few pieces of the Romeo & Juliet set dangling, Damocles sword-like, above the Cleveland Orchestra’s double bass section (it would be such a pity), Franz Welser-Möst got to show the international audience at the Salzburg Festival what he can do with his “other”, American orchestra in direct comparison to the Vienna Philharmonic’s performances. Judging from their second of three programs on August 24th and their performance week before when they were on opera-duty for Rusalka, America’s youngest of the “Great Five” orchestras can teach their Old Europe counterparts lessons in nuance, luminosity, subtlety, transparency, and delicacy. At least this is true compared to the Vienna Philharmonic’s operatic guise as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra which I last heard under Thielemann (Parsifal: brilliant, though sloppy) and Segerstam (Tristan: very modest).


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A.Dvořák, Rusalka
Cleveland Orchestra
F.Welser-Möst (conductor)
Orfeo
The Cleveland Orchestra, at least under Welser-Möst – is not a terribly exciting orchestra and it won’t likely be caught probing the emotional extremes of any given score. But boy, do they sound splendid in what they do. The music they play is made to sound its very best, whether the Andante of the 10th Symphony of Franz Schubert (performing version by Brian Newbould), Bela Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók’s Viola Concerto, or Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz.

The chill of the surrounding rock in the refreshingly cool and coolly lit Felsenreitschule necessitated a fastening of shawls and pashminas. With a few pieces of the Romeo & Juliet set dangling, Damocles sword-like, above the Cleveland Orchestra’s double bass section (it would be such a pity), Franz Welser-Möst got to show the international audience at the Salzburg Festival what he can do with his “other”, American orchestra in direct comparison to the Vienna Philharmonic’s performances. Judging from their second of three programs on August 24th and their performance a week before when they were on opera-duty for Rusalka, America’s youngest of the “Great Five” orchestras can teach their Old Europe counterparts lessons in nuance, luminosity, subtlety, transparency, and delicacy. At least this is true compared to the Vienna Philharmonic’s operatic guise as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra which I last heard under Thielemann (Parsifal: brilliant, though sloppy) and Segerstam (Tristan: very modest).

The Cleveland Orchestra, at least under Welser-Möst, is not a terribly exciting orchestra and it won’t likely be caught probing the emotional extremes of any given score. But boy, do they sound splendid in what they do. The music they play is made to sound its very best, whether the Andante of the 10th Symphony of Franz Schubert (performing version by Brian Newbould), Bela Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók’s Viola Concerto, or Johann Strauss’ Emperor Waltz.

In that repetitively delightful Schubert Andante, the ears indulged in the playing’s great elegance, especially of individual voices (with the oboe as primus inter pares), the strings’ civilized sound, and homogenous brass delicacy. With how many other orchestras would especially the latter claim be an oxymoron?!

Bartók’s Mandarin is an orchestral showpiece with the possibility to earn honors in precision and color. It should also be more than that: When premiered with the pantomime that goes with it, the subject so disturbed the audience (a hooker clamoring for business, an overly excited man, and a bloody end on top), that Cologne’s mayor and chancellor-to-be Konrad Adenauer had subsequent performances canceled. Ideally, the Miraculous Mandarin is not just a test for orchestral splendor, it is musical porn. The Cleveland Orchestra performed superbly but PG13. Full marks on all technical aspects, but deductions for less than lurid story-telling. With Welser-Möst it was a spectacular orchestral show, but absolute music. In the end, one left seduced, but there was no need to wipe blood off the floor.

There was coherence even in chaos – to an effect as if every audience member had been given a set of Pierre Boulez’ ears. Amid supreme clarinets (though the first with too much extraneous air in the most aggressive parts), every part of the orchestra had ample opportunity to shine – and did.

Kim Kashkashian, the ARD-prize winning violist* from Detroit, presented the rarely performed Viola Concerto (like the Schubert, it had to be reconstructed from sketches) impeccably; even that out-of-control hearing aid (or some other electro-acoustical nuisance) could not detract from those long cadenza-like passages that echo in the orchestra, trading fragments with the soloist. The brass, once again showing its superiority over more famous, crassly blaring such sections inother orchestras, was touchingly distant, as if played from far, far away. The many very lyrical sections – not unlike in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto – turned this into yet another showpiece, this time for the viola. Spectacular all around and sure to have won new converts to Bartók.

The Emperor Waltz begins with that most waltzing 4/4 imaginable before a little transformational scene gets the actual ¾ underway. The arch-Austrian Welser-Möst (born in Linz, capitol of Upper Austria) made for a smooth sounding, strangely Prussian execution of the waltz – as if 90 musicians were filmed in the act of exactitudinal skating on an ice rink. Ears and mind were moved and swayed, but one’s heart, feet, and buttocks remained firmly put.

* The Quatuor Ébène, which I reviewed the week before, is also an ARD prize winner. And coincidentally both categories, String Quartet and Viola are part of the upcoming 2008 ARD Music Competition which gets underway in September.





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