Jeux Poème dansé
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 26 August, 2004
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh
This final concert of the trio given by the Cleveland Orchestra over three consecutive nights was a magnificent affair. Franz Welser-Möst’s pairing of Debussy’s most elusive orchestral work and what is arguably Mahler’s most problematic symphony worked surprisingly well. More importantly, both works were given the sort of elan and commitment one hopes for but seldom encounters.
Ravishing though it was to hear Jeux played with this degree of finesse, the plum was the Mahler 7, which was as well played and at the same time as convincing a conception of the symphony as I have yet had the good fortune to hear live. Its three defining characteristics were firstly a contained power with dynamics precisely observed and the orchestra playing for the most part well within itself. Secondly, there was a gloriously mellow old-world sound-quality, one at the opposite extreme to the raucous ill-focussed hubbub that sometimes passes for Mahler playing.Thirdly, Welser-Möst’s conception of the piece was as a unified whole.
All too often, once the huge opening movement is over, the four that remain seem something of an anti-climax. Not so from Welser-Möst. Adopting speeds slightly slower than usual and conducting with the sort of patience one expects of an older conductor, Welser-Most refused to rush his fences, allowing tensions to build up naturally over long spans and, equally importantly, precisely locating those important lacunae of stillness which lie at the symphony’s key moments. In many performances the first ‘Nachtmusik’ can seem interminable, whereas here, taken slowly and gently, the slow marches were given a soundworld all of their own and held one’s attention. The diabolical scherzo was tightly focussed, every note in place but underplayed and all the more effective for it, whilst the finale had lightness and avoided overkill or bombast. The second ‘Nachtmusik’ with its mandolin and guitar lingered in the mind long after the concert. What was truly remarkable though was the way that, for once, the symphony held together as an entity right up to its joyous life-affirming conclusion. The playing was of the highest order, the wind and brass embedded in the strings rather than raised above them, the nine double basses ranged across the rear of the orchestra and making for a particularly warm integrated blend.
Jeux may not have achieved the popularity of Debussy’s other orchestral masterpieces but its elliptical description of the eternal emotional triangle between a man and two girls as they play tennis is quite possibly his supreme achievement for orchestra. It is also a supreme test of an orchestra’s qualities and flexibility, a test the Clevelanders passed with flying colours.