Symphony No.2 in D-minor, Op.40
Symphony No.5 in B-flat, Op.100
The Cleveland Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 21 January, 2024
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This carefully curated program, part of Carnegie Hall’s festival, Fall of the Weimar Republic: Dancing on the Precipice, which surveys the sounds of Germany’s Weimar era (1919-1933), bookended Anton Webern’s exacting Symphony with two formidable Symphonies by Prokofiev – one composed during the years of the Weimar Republic, the other during the wartime period that followed.
Prokofiev composed his Second Symphony in Paris, 1924-25, during what he described as “nine months of frenzied toil”. The experimental opus, made “of iron and steel”, is loud and expansive, a nod to the 1920s’ fashion for musical compositions echoing the sounds of industry and the excitement of the machine-driven age. Cast in two movements – the second a set of Variations – the music is weighty and intense. With his trademark poise and meticulousness, Franz Welser-Möst was precise but never brutal, allowing the stridency, driving rhythms, and fanfare-like elements to emerge into a coherent and powerful whole. The Clevelanders’ playing was forceful and frequently thrilling, the Theme-and-Variations enlivened by a sense of hyper-kinetic restlessness and creative transformation.
Anton Webern’s concentrated Symphony is a two-movement gem for clarinet, bass clarinet, two horns, harp and strings. Although some listeners might need the score to fully appreciate the structural complexities, this captivating performance conveyed a clear idea of its graceful symmetry. With individual instruments dispatching their parts in brief snippets, Welser-Möst’s clear, calmly paced beat held everything together to shape seemingly complete melodic lines. The first movement sparkled with glasslike clarity as it moved forward from its simple horn opening through a series of manipulations and then returned to where it came from; and the second, kaleidoscopic variations, was delivered with similar luminosity and expressivity.
After intermission came a scintillating performance of Prokofiev’s dramatic Fifth Symphony. Composed during the last months of World War II as a “symphony of the greatness of the human spirit”, it has been a staple in the Cleveland Orchestra’s repertoire since 1947, when George Szell first conducted it. On this occasion the ensemble offered an assured and settled account, distinguished by urgent tempos, transparent textures and superlative playing, with especially fine contributions from Joshua Smith on flute, Frank Rosenwein, oboe, Afendi Yusuf, clarinet, and John Clouser, bassoon. With his understated conducting style, Welser-Möst demonstrated splendid command throughout, steadily increasing the tension to bring the Symphony to an electrifying end.