Haydn! So good to see you on the program of a large symphony orchestra. So suspect, however, to see you atop the bill. In place of the overture… the warm-up piece, the throw-away joke, the fig-leaf Haydn. Admittedly, any Haydn is better than no Haydn, but how I want to see him moved to a more prominent position on orchestra’s programs; a position that signals to everyone how central he is to the orchestra and our understanding of music… how deserving of our focus and attention. How Haydn is not to be taken for granted or lightly.
All that is true in general and went through my mind—in pre-manufactured phrases—before Franz Welser-Möst had even stepped on the stage of the Herkulessaal to lead the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a program of—apart from Haydn—Berg’s Lulu Suite (with Anu Komsi) and Dvořák’s Fifth (!) Symphony. And true though all these reservations may be, many of them were misplaced because under “Frankly Worse-than-Most” (the ugly nickname a gift from the Austrian conductor’s London times) the Symphony—No.26 in d-minor (“Lamentatione”)—turned out delicate, exacting, mechanical in a beautiful music-box sort of way. At least as enjoyed in very close proximity to the stage, the opening Allegro and the touching and felt gorgeousness of the Adagio were perfectly beautiful, and the slight finale (Menuet-Trio) had ample grace. Rollicking stuff this was not, but neither was it heavy-footed or sluggish as careless big-band Haydn so easily turns into.
Up next Berg: a strength of Welser-Möst who is—if anything—a superb opera conductor. (Remembering his Rusalka at Salzburg still evokes a little high.) The standard has been set absurdly high for the Lulu Suite, though, when Daniele Gatti stopped by in Munich last year. A fire-and-brimstone Lulu, raw and sanguineous, this was not; rather Welser-Möst went for exciting-but-controlled… tastefully understated, if Lulu allows for tasteful understatement. He unleashed occasionally, which reminded why opera suits him so well, and unfair comparisons aside, this wasn’t at all academic or gray, two of the favorite invectives hurled at Cleveland’s music director. The Suite itself does its part, cherry picking from the opera’s score and releasing all the romantic, sensual, and sexual air of Lulu. It might well have made new friends for Berg that had hitherto approached his music with trepidation. If there was a notable weakness, it would have been Anu Komsi who, once she got under way, sought refuge in a heavy vibrato. Before that she sat on stage uncomfortably, her face indicating something between passing out and hatching a most intricate, unspeakably devious plan of revenge against someone who has wronged her. Surely neither that, nor her too-tight, too-sleeveless dress of an indefinable ‘color’ (somewhere between burnt umber, bronze, muddy orange, and copper-tone liverwurst), influenced her vocal contribution—but it was nevertheless the topic of choice during intermission. File under: “Style Advisor, Lack Thereof.”
Then the Dvořák Symphony: the “Fifth” in modern parlance, when it was once the “Third”, published with the fake opus number 76, sometime after the Sixth and Seventh (then the First and Second, respectively). It’s one of the Dvořák Symphonies that strangely gets short shrift, and among those that do (One through Five), it’s the most even-keeled, mature, charming, and Bohemian. Certainly the most unfairly neglected… although I wouldn’t mind hearing Dvořák’s Third (“Wagner without Words), myself. Sonorous woodwinds open with great immediacy and draw you into a smashingly entertaining, jaunty Allegro. Clearly unburdened by the symphonists that came before him, you can’t—thankfully—hear the shadow of Beethoven hover above Dvořák. If anything—although this is a tricky matter—you can hear Haydn channeled through someone superbly familiar with the writing of Wagner. But then everyone seems to hear in Dvořák what they wish to; like Jesus he reveals whatever the listeners expects to hear from him. A Brahmsian, a Wagnerian, a quintessential Bohemian voice, the first American Symphonist…
To some extent all that (except the ‘American’ claims, for which there isn’t any base) is understandable, because there’s a little of all of that in one or more of his heterogeneous symphonies. Whether it is helpful in understanding his symphonic body is another question. At least it doesn’t harm our enjoyment of Dvořák. And enjoyment was plentifully available here. The solid, dependable craftsmanship of Welser-Möst might be an old-fashioned value in the age of flash, bang, and razzle-dazzle conductors that energize a crowd by means of great hair, alone, but it has its virtues. Might more zest have been possible in the finale of the Dvořák? Certainly. Was it the kind of performance that will be remembered as a season’s highlight? Certainly not. But it was the kind of commendable average which, if it actually were the average of our symphonic nights out, would make for a whole-heartedly satisfying string of musical experiences.
Photo courtesy BR Klassik, © Roger Mastroianni