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The Double Life of Franz Welser-Möst
Ionarts at Large: Welser-Möst in Henze & Mozart

“We should play music, whenever it’s good music” answers Franz Welser-Möst to the question why he programmed Hans Werner Henze’s First Symphony with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E-flat K482 and the “Prague” Symphony for the his concerts with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (October 30th/31st). His rejection of playing modern music only when it’s a world premiere is part of the same subtle, conservative dissent as his decision to put a Mozart Symphony at the end of the concert, rather than open with Mozart and finish with a romantic barnstormer; “grand, effect-orchestrated monsters”, as he calls them.

available at Amazon
Hans Werner Henze, Symphonies 1-6,
H.W.Henze / BPh, LSO
DG / Brilliant

Not that he’s no good at the latter. The Henze, arguably one such grand work, comes across elegiac and polished – sounding much more like a romantic symphony in the vain of Fortner (Henze’s teacher) or K.A.Hartmann, than a 20 year old composer’s Darmstadt debut. How much of that the tone-row based, loosely dodecaphonic, 1946 symphony owes to its 1964 and 1991 revisions I don’t know, but listening to the almost unchanged lyrical second movement (Notturno, lento) I venture to say: much less than it owed to the orchestra’s obviously well-rehearsed performance and the noble, aloof air FWM lent it.

In the evidently under-rehearsed concerto (pianist Gitti Pirner played nimble, understated and very affable Mozart), the orchestra earned demerits for a first movement full of flubs. They recovered in time for the symphony, which was given as full-bodied Mozart, just the way large symphony orchestras should play Classical music if they are not to sound silly. That big-band Mozart is not just a necessary exercise in de-coagulating an orchestra’s sound, clogged from too much heavy romantic fare, has been proven beyond all doubt by the Krips recordings with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips) which remain the acme of the art of tip-toeing with a body of 50 string players.

FWM didn’t achieve Kripsian lightness, but since the Prague Symphony’s three movements look forward to a grander type of symphony as much as Beethoven’s first two symphonies look back, it can take the heft that the BRSO gave it. FWM’s main achievements were lavishness without indulgence, gentility without preciousness, and (perhaps surprisingly) a sense of untamed excitement in the Presto.

If the programming and the type of Mozart performance were indicative of FWM’s approach to music, the Henze lent itself more to the display of orchestral tone, colors, and control that make him an exceptional conductor and respected among continental European critics, even if the BRSO, one of the handful of Germany’s finest orchestras, didn’t quite achieve the sound that FWM’s refined Cleveland Orchestra is capable of.

It is that orchestra from the shores of Lake Erie that hugely impresses European critics whenever FWM takes them on tour, because America’s youngest of the “Great Five” can teach their Old Europe counterparts lessons in nuance, luminosity, subtlety, transparency, and delicacy. Something I’ve had a chance to observe in Salzburg in the summer of 2008 with three orchestral programs and a performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka, the latter of which made seasoned critics look at each other with an admiring look of “you can do that?”. There and then I’ve heard FWM turn descriptive music into absolute music, elicit the utmost lucidity out of the chosen works, albeit at the price of circumnavigating their emotional extremes.

Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin became an orchestral study of color, not a graphic depiction of sexuality and violence. Bartók’s Viola Concerto suddenly made sense in a way it only can if the orchestra operates at a level only few bands could negotiate. Pianissimos are true pianissimos under Welser-Möst, the clarity even in thickly instrumented works such that every instrument’s position is identifiable on stage. His idea of expressive softness never let singers be swamped in a muddle of sound, nor soloists crowded out of the soundstage.

If there is that much excellence to be found, one has to wonder why Anglo-American critics’ reactions have been and are so negative. The difference between FWM’s ability in conducting opera (readily acknowledged even in Cleveland) and orchestral pieces does not begin to explain the difference in perception. Why London was so scathing, I don’t know. As far Clevelanders are concerned, could they be spoiled for the orchestra’s sound? Continental critics credit the Cleveland Orchestra’s very excellence of sound at least in part on FWM’s abilities. In Cleveland it is considered a given.

Europeans, meanwhile, are busy being amazed at the sound qualities and don’t seem to miss the often lacking sense of excitement. It is perhaps a question of refinement vs. excitement and one of repeat exposure. FWM is not the man for the extra kick, the thrill, the utter excitement – but he’s the man for a honed, incredibly civilized sound. His sensibilities lend themselves more to opera in a time where we expect orchestral fare to hammer and pound us into submission or elate us with pure intensity and vigor. The quality of quality itself might be a bit more tricky to appreciate when faced with it 18 weeks of the year, especially if what sounds like subtlety to these ears sounds becomes a wash of “gray” to those that are regularly exposed.

For better or worse, FWM is a custodian of sound, and should his orchestral story be one of emotional depths unplunged, the idea of refinement over excitement seems appealing to critics and audiences in Europe when it comes to welcoming him as a guest- or ­opera- conductor. For the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Welser-Möst’s current European post, that should be exactly what they need. Clevenlanders, meanwhile, yearn for the return of refinement with excitement. Welser-Möst’s contract as music director expires in 2018 never.

Recommended Recordings (Welser-Möst):
FWM's reputation is that of an unexciting conductor who doesn't rise beyond surface-sheen and remains emotionally shallow and interpretatively bland. Any of these five recordings should prove that stereotype wrong (or at least too general to stick), especially the Schmidt recordings and the Alpine Symphony which I recommend as a HiFi, near-cinematic audio spectacle.

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F.Schmidt, Sy.4, F.W-M

available at Amazon
F.Schmidt, Book of 7 Seals, F.W-M / BRSO / René Pape, Chr.Oelze, et al.
available at Amazon
R.Strauss, Alpine Symphony, F.W-M / Gustav Mahler YO

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Sys.5 & 7, F.W-M
available at Amazon
E.Korngold, Sy. in F-sharp, Songs, F.W-M / Phil.O, B. Hendricks

available at Amazon
A.Pärt, Sanctuary, F.W-M

(This article has appeared in the Jan/Feb 2008 edition of the American Record Guide.)