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Final Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 16 )

Cleveland Orchestra • Franz Welser-Möst

The two Cleveland Orchestra concerts were not much less weird than that of the Berlin Philharmonic. Not by much, but a little. Mainly because Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is a more easily appreciated work than his Third Symphony, especially for people who had come primarily for Bedřich Smetana’s Má Vlast. Or at least two thirds of it, seeing how the set of symphonic poems was split between the first and second concert. (The second concert contained—half 0dd, half interesting—Lutosławski’s Concerto for Piano, “Má Vlast cont.”, and DSCH Sy.6.) The starting time of 9PM apparently indicated this year: “Danger, modern music may be performed”. Enough people got the hint, judging from the lot of empty seats in the Grosse Festspielhaus. A pity that not more (European) listeners would want to exploit the rare opportunity to hear one of the world’s most exalted orchestras—one of the few that can always compete with the elite orchestras of Europe.

They certainly showed up the Berlin Philharmonic in Lutosławski. Layer upon layer, each fitting exactly, Franz Welser-Möst constructed this Concerto with painstaking precision from which rose an irresistible pull. What I said about the work (and the performance, given that the BRSO is perhaps the European Orchestra that most resembles the Clevelander’s technical ability) in 2009, when Mariss Jansons conducted it in Munich, applies here, too:

Composed between 1950 and ’54 [as] the composer was moving from neo-classicism to … Bartók’s folk-modernism, the work is gripping, short on dissonance and long on sharp contrast and driving rhythms. This is music of a rare invigorating quality, full of different shades, timbres, and various levels of textures without being a saturated Technicolor bonbon: clarity and a sense of cool remain even during the glowing brass passages and the intoxicating finale. What an awe-some concerto to explore—and to explore such a fine orchestra with. It’s precisely the kind of work the Bavarians seem made to perform. By the end of it, the entire (remaining) audience was won over.

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B.Smetana, Má Vlast,
V.Talich / Czech PO

Well, the bit about the entire audience didn’t quite apply in the Salzburg scenario. And where Bavarian precision did the trick then, it’s was the transparency of the work that makes the Cleveland Orchestra an ideal musical body to perform it. The Clevelanders worked like a gigantic organ one second, then light and fleeting in the Cappricio: like a meadow of wisps and grasshoppers, interrupted by a few ominous thunder clasps. The Passacaglia was played so teasingly soft by the double basses, it had overtones of the opening of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. Other instruments, one by one, entered with commentary, and the strings provide a gently heaving subfloor.

Figuring that if this approach paid such dividends with Lutosławski, Welser-Möst went the same way about it with Má Vlast: The resulting performance was incredibly precise, incredibly controlled, incredibly detailed, and incredibly boring.

Picture courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Wolfgang Lienbacher

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