Written by: Andrew Farach-Colton
Guide to Strange Places
Symphony No.5 in B flat
Symphony No.7 in E [edited Leopold Nowak]
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1887 score, edited Leopold Nowak]
Doctor Atomic Symphony
Symphony No.9 in D minor
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Wednesday, July 13; Thursday, July 14; Saturday, July 16; Sunday, July 17
The Cleveland Orchestra’s residency at the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival was billed as Bruckner: (R)evolution. The title itself, with its oh-so-clever punctuation, is typical of the generic pretentiousness that far too many cultural curators use as a lure. Here, the conceit was to look at Bruckner as “the grandfather of minimalism”, in Franz Welser-Möst’s words. Thus, three of the four concerts included major works by John Adams.
In an introductory essay to the series, Eric Sellen (the Cleveland Orchestra’s programme editor) makes a noble attempt to give the concept intellectual heft. He offers as evidence Welser-Möst’s assertion that Bruckner, like his minimalist descendents, uses “small little elements [to] build something much larger and extremely powerful.” Never mind that the same could be said of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, or Webern. And forget, too, for a moment that while Adams began his musical career as a Minimalist, he has long since moved on to far craggier, thornier terrain.
The crucial problem with comparative expositions such as this is that they tend to be focused on cataloging similarities, whereas it’s almost always more constructive to examine how composers differ – what makes their work unique. Yes, both Bruckner and Adams make use of repetition that’s underscored by extended periods of harmonic stasis. But even when Adams hews at length to one harmony, one feels propelled (sometimes quite violently) forward; Bruckner’s music, on the other hand, seems to slow time. This distinction does make Adams’s music an excellent foil for Bruckner’s later symphonies – and the vigorous rhythmic intricacy and bracing harmonic astringency of the American composer’s music helps, too.
Certainly, the performances of all three Adams works were superb. Welser-Möst is a relatively restrained figure on the podium, yet he inspired impassioned playing from the Clevelanders. A Guide to Strange Places moved with unnerving urgency. Even its lyrical passages offered little respite, conveying instead a feeling of plangent desperation. Leila Josefowicz gave a spellbinding account of the Violin Concerto, swooping and soaring through the first two movements as if in a rapturous improvisation. She was positively demonic in the finale, slashing expertly through treacherously jagged syncopations. Welser-Möst held the orchestral part together tautly. Perhaps there could have been more manic energy in the first half of the Doctor Atomic Symphony (three densely-packed orchestral movements drawn from the score of Adams’s 2005 opera). In the beginning of the second movement, entitled ‘Panic’, Welser-Möst held the reins rather too tightly, sacrificing breathless anxiety for precision and textural clarity. But with principal trombonist Massimo La Rosa’s incendiary solo, the performance caught fire. And the final movement (adapted from the opera’s lyrical peak: a haunting John Dowland aria from the end of Act One) provided emotional catharsis with searing (almost savage) playing by trumpeter Michael Sachs. Adams was present at the three concerts featuring his music.
The audience was demonstrably appreciative throughout the series, and rightly so, as the playing of the Cleveland Orchestra in the Bruckner symphonies was beyond reproach. The string tone is consistently luxurious and silky, yet how the players dig into those fortissimo tremolandos. At the end of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, it seemed the violins might saw their instruments in half! And the brass sound is equally sumptuous; rarely have four horns been so ideally blended and balanced. Not only that, but despite the demands of the four taxing, closely-spaced concerts, there were precious few flubs or cracked notes. The woodwind solos were executed with élan and a collective sensitivity to atmosphere and color that was truly impressive.
There was something missing, however. For all the awe-inspiring brilliance of the execution, there was an emotional flatness that dulled much of the potential power of Bruckner’s scores. Welser-Möst has a sure sense of each symphony’s structure, and there’s a natural, easy flow to his interpretations that’s difficult to achieve in such vast and complex designs. Indeed, perhaps it’s too easy. Yes, Bruckner’s music abounds in sudden silences and abrupt changes of mood that can (if insensitively handled) seem oafishly awkward. But Welser-Möst often errs in the opposite direction, smoothing over rough transitions and tying together disparate themes that demand to be as distinct as possible. In the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, for instance, he streamlined and polished the rhythmically precipitous opening section so it fitted more neatly with the rustic dance that follows. This did bind the movement together, but with a significant loss of character and dramatic point.
Throughout most of the series Welser-Möst seemed content to sacrifice character for coherence. That astonishing cello theme that opens the Seventh Symphony – climbing two octaves, as if ascending to some rarefied plane – was rendered with beautiful tone but remained earthbound. And there was no magical surprise at the melody’s wondrous return in the woodwinds at the beginning of the development section. The terrifying ferocity of the Ninth’s scherzo was dulled by fussy articulation, and the Adagio was oddly cool. Welser-Möst chose a flowing tempo for the latter that emphasized the music’s vocal quality, yet there was no ache in the violin’s opening lament, and not a trace of vulnerability. The playing was beautiful, sure – but it was a bland beauty.
The high-point was the performance of the Eighth Symphony (in the rarely-played and thoroughly fascinating 1887 version) – a gripping account marked by countless felicities. The development section of the first movement was literally breathtaking, with exquisite woodwind solos that affectingly conveyed a sense of profound, lonely melancholy. Hairpin crescendos in the main tune of the scherzo (cellos) were like gusts of wind, complementing the violins’ tremulous flurries. Sudden silences that fell limp in the other symphonies in the series were electric in the Eighth’s Adagio, and in the final pages of that movement, time seemed to stop for a minute or two. The finale had tremendous energy and sweep, moving inexorably to the exultant coda.
Does this first version of the score deserve to take its place alongside the more familiar 1890 revision? With a performance as richly detailed and compelling as Welser-Möst’s, the answer is an unequivocal yes.