Cleveland Orchestra/Welser-Möst in New York [Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Schumann’s Piano Concerto]

Concert One [Friday, February 4, 2011]

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Woven Dreams [New York premiere]
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Concert Two [Saturday, February 5, 2011]

Tannhäuser – Overture
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 5 February, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Franz Welser-Möst. Photograph: Harald SchneiderA story used to be told about Herbert von Karajan getting into a cab. “Where to?”. “It doesn’t matter, they want me everywhere.” Nowadays this tale could easily be told about Valery Gergiev, and Franz Welser-Möst too has joined the ranks of conductors who are racking up frequent air-miles. While James Levine is commuting up and down the East Coast, Welser-Möst is jetting back and forth between his positions as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra and of the Vienna State Opera. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to do justice to both of these venerable institutions and, most importantly, to the music. Guest conductors travelling around the globe can immerse themselves in a few repeated programs, but from a music director one expects a broad and varied repertoire.

Judging from these two New York concerts, Welser-Möst gave the impression that he is first and foremost an opera conductor. The Overture to “Tannhäuser” showed him at his most involved, genuinely connecting with the burnished sound of the Cleveland string section (if not using antiphonally seated violins), which almost overpowered the wind and brass. Similarly, in the only encore, in the first concert, ‘Träumerei am Kamin’ from Richard Strauss’s “Intermezzo”, he brought great feeling and sensibility.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which had opened the first program, featured beautiful playing by flutist Joshua Smith and great transparency of orchestral texture. However, this was a very languorous interpretation, lacking the underlying sensuality and erotic tension of the score.

Although written more than a hundred years later and on a different continent, Toshio Hosokawa’s Woven Dreams was the perfect companion. An aural depiction of a dream the composer had about being in his mother’s womb and being born, it starts very simply with just one note, a B flat. Moving forward by gradually broadening out into palettes of sound, Hosokawa paints his dream with aquarelle clusters of colors, using quarter-tones at times. Wisps of melody play a subsidiary role, there are accents in the percussion; it gradually builds up to the ‘Exit’ and resolves into a peaceful daze again, the comforts of the mother’s arms. It is an appealing piece, which could be enjoyed only by not looking at the conductor. Although the composer, who was present, confirmed that it was written in strict meter, there must be a way of directing the orchestra besides giving four big beats in every bar; this completely destroyed the atmosphere.

As much as the first half had been all about atmosphere and restrained playing, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben concluded the first concert with extroversion bordering on chaos. Current trends in interpretation of this piece run towards stretching it out of proportion, but Welser-Möst made is clear from the very first note that he would have none of that. Strauss’s Lebhaft (lively) marking was taken at such a brisk pace that later the Sehr lebhaft (very lively) of ‘The Hero at Battle’ ended up much too fast. The brass, however virtuosic the players may be, had no chance of articulating clearly, or even precisely staying with the rest of the orchestra. Strauss’s main contrapuntal lines got lost in the fray, when they weren’t completely drowned out by percussion. Only if Welser-Möst wanted to show us the utter mayhem, brutality and ugliness of warfare did he succeeded admirably. On the other end of the spectrum, William Preucil played a sweetly seductive violin solo depicting Pauline (Strauss’s wife), and the final duet with horn-player Richard King was very touching.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerIt is to the credit of the Clevelanders that they give Welser-Möst exactly what he asks for – all-out playing, or refinement. In Schumann’s Piano Concerto there was no Germanic heaviness, but a very clear, light string sound with perfectly balanced and blended winds. Pierre-Laurent Aimard treated the concerto as chamber music – finely nuanced, well-thought-out phrasing and tasteful tempo modifications in the first movement, and an intimate interplay between him and the orchestra in the Intermezzo. Only in the finale did one wish for a slightly livelier tempo; the longer it went on, the more it sounded like Chopin rather than Schumann.

The Bartók is one of the more difficult pieces in the repertoire due to the many divisions within the sections and the high and exposed notes. The Cleveland strings easily rose to the challenge, as did the percussion section and pianist Joela Jones. It was a thoroughly respectable and well-played performance, but almost too beautiful. A little more edge at times, a little more Paprika, would have been welcome.

Altogether Franz Welser-Möst showed himself to be more of a Kapellmeister than a truly inspired conductor. As the saying goes, “nothing happened – and nothing happened”, except for the free-for-all Strauss. Maybe he responds differently to Bruckner; we shall find out during the orchestra’s first residency in New York in July.

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