Edinburgh Festival – Cleveland Orchestra 1

William Tell – Overture
Symphony No.100 in G (Military)
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 August, 2004
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

In the first of three Edinburgh Festival concerts, the Cleveland Orchestra and its recently appointed Music Director Franz Welser-Möst (his position now extended to the end of the 2011-12 season) made some interesting repertoire connections. A ‘moment’ of William Tell is quoted to add further enigma to the already-existing phantasms of the first movement of Shostakovich’s 15th and final symphony (Wagner and Glinka also make appearances), a work scored with exceptional clarity and utilising rather a lot of percussion, a commodity that makes a rare, ‘Turkish’ contribution to this particular Haydn symphony.

Of the great American orchestras, the Cleveland is perhaps the most refined and decorous, its musicians relishing the opportunities to make chamber music. Welser-Möst places the violas outside-right; his predecessor, the equally European-tradition-minded Christoph von Dohnányi, preferred the violins to be antiphonal, the ‘classic’ arrangement. But think of the Cleveland Orchestra and, even thirty-plus years on, George Szell’s tenure remains the legendary one.

In the William Tell overture, its four sections unusually well integrated here, the finesse of balance and the cultivation of the playing was ear-catching, with wonderfully expressive contributions from principal cellist Desmond Hoebig and four of his colleagues although the tempest of the second section was held-back too much, bass drum and trombones overly integrated. The Haydn was disappointing, rather ‘designer’, initially-fetching lightness and elegance outstaying their welcome and the contrived dynamics and cute phrasing drawing attention. When something more muscular was thought needed, the effect was brusque. Haydn’s witticisms and down to earth qualities took an evening off. Some notably-achieved episodes (the quick march of the second movement, adorned by exceptional woodwinds, and the hard-stick timpani interjection in the finale) were undone by longer stretches of Welser-Möst trying to be ‘authentic’ and also recall his Austrian heritage, one that Karl Böhm epitomised. A couple of spots of rough ensemble were momentary surprises.

In terms of orchestral playing, the Shostakovich was often breathtaking and perfectly poised. At 40 minutes or so, Welser-Möst knocked about 10 off of Kurt Sanderling’s dark, fatalistic account, and it would be unfair to expect Welser-Möst to be as close to this work as Sanderling, the composer’s son Maxim (who conducted the first performance) or Mstislav Rostropovich. Welser-Möst took the composer at his word and conducted a four-movement symphony, one with a flight of imagination that attracts a range of extra-musical explanation. Welser-Möst made the hallucinations, despair, loneliness, spikiness and railings an intrinsic part of the symphony and successfully avoided turning this fugitive masterpiece into a showy concerto for orchestra, easy to do with an orchestra of this quality if a true appreciation of the work isn’t present. If Welser-Möst jacked up the tempos for the first and third movements, both merely Allegretto, he lost neither the edge nor the focus of the music. There was some memorable crepuscular-coloured inwardness, realised at genuine pianissimos, which signalled the coda of percussion-backed apparitions for the symphony’s very simple and very effective into-the-ether conclusion. One drawback was the audience’s coughing; this is music that sometimes hangs by a thread, the silence as important as the sounds. Not everybody cottoned on to this.

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