The Cleveland Orchestra in New York – Dvořák, Kyburz & Debussy

Symphony No.5 in F, Op.76
touché [New York premiere]
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Laura Aikin (soprano) & John Mark Ainsley (tenor)

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 5 October, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

This was the second of three concerts by The Cleveland Orchestra marking the opening of Carnegie Hall’s 2006-2007 season. Music director Franz Welser-Möst led a programme that included Dvořák’s Symphony No.5, Hanspeter Kyburz’s touché, a new work for soprano, tenor and orchestra, and Debussy’s La mer.

Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony, even if not a match for the composer’s last symphonies, merits greater prominence in the symphonic repertoire than it presently enjoys. However, this performance of the Fifth, although on the whole pleasurable, was less effective than it might have been in making a case for the work’s greatness. The Cleveland’s sound lacked its accustomed clarity, and at times – particularly in the opening movement – took on a somewhat muddy character. Some of Welser-Möst’s tempos felt unduly slow, especially the middle section of the Andante, which was too sluggish to capture the music’s delicate charm. Again, after the bombastic opening section of the finale, the change to a slower tempo was overly exaggerated.

Despite these reservations, there was much good playing, most notably by several of the principal wind players: Richard King (horn), Franklin Cohen (clarinet), Frank Rosenwein (oboe), and Joshua Smith (flute). Among the more memorable moments was the playing of the cello section in the Andante, Cohen’s clarinet solo in the Allegro scherzando, and the playing of the trombones at the start of the finale.

Welser-Möst and the orchestra were in excellent form in the New York premiere of touché, which Hanspeter Kyburz (the Swiss composer born in Lagos) wrote under a commission for The Cleveland Orchestra from Carnegie Hall, the Lucerne Festival and Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm. It is in the form of a dialogue between a quarrelling couple – soprano Laura Aikin and tenor John Mark Ainsley – whose often bitter and sarcastic exchanges are matched by a large orchestra with a full complement of percussion instruments. The text, written by Sabine Marienberg (the composer’s wife), is laden with clever literary tropes. Kyburz is known to make use of computers in his compositional process, but their impact on the music is not discernible to the listener – at least at the conscious level.

The rhythmic instrumental introduction contrasted the deep sounds of the violas, cellos, double basses and English horn with bright and high-pitched sounds of violin harmonics, flute, xylophone, triangle and piano. This set the stage for the clash between the vocal protagonists who acknowledge that they are engaged in a sort of game when, to the accompaniment of chords and outbursts from the tuba and other brass, the tenor exclaims, “You bet!” and the soprano replies, “Bet taken. Whose move is it?” She sings an arioso passage, accompanied by harps and pp violin tremolos, alongside the tenor’s recitative. In the remainder of the first of the work’s three parts the music is generally discordant and the dialogue quite disconnected, with each interrupting the other in mid-sentence, singing, speaking or even shouting such conversation stoppers as the soprano’s “stop it” or the tenor’s “you bet” and “next” – accompanied by the whip-crack sound of the slapstick. The first part ends with an unusual type of pun, juxtaposing the sound of a whip with the soprano’s calling the tenor a “wimp”.

In contrast to the constant interruptions of the opening section, the second part begins with extended and melodic arioso passages, first for the tenor, accompanied by xylophone and piano, and then the soprano, with winds and trumpet. The interruptions soon resume, however, with dialogue that features many rhymes, assonances and alliterations such as when the soprano calls the tenor “a wimp, a simp” and a “wishy-washy windbag”. He responds with a litany of condescending sobriquets: “Well wailed, Miss sound-of-siren”; “No doubt, Miss know-it-all”; “You don’t say! Miss hard-to-please, Miss picky finicky”; and finally “Your Highness”.

The third part begins in the brass and timpani, then the strings, celesta and percussion and chattering woodwinds, with the soprano sustaining high notes on the words “downwards” and “reverberating”. In this part, neither protagonist can ever get more than a few words in edgewise, but they are no longer always at odds with one another and are singing more nearly together, with their voices sometimes crossing, placing the tenor’s voice above the soprano’s. The work’s concluding orchestral passages featured the tuba, xylophone and other percussion, piccolo, piano in its uppermost octave, and finally the double basses.

Welser-Möst had the orchestra playing with clarity and precision, and both Aikin and Ainsley were in excellent voice and effectively projected the text, with all of its heavy emotional content. Although some of the loudest orchestral passages made it hard to hear all of the words, supertitles were provided to enable the audience to follow the dialogue at those times.

The best of the evening’s programme was saved for last: a radiant performance of La mer, Debussy’s most symphonic work. Welser-Möst and the orchestra brilliantly evoked the rich palette of orchestral colours that Debussy used to depict the varied aspects of the sea.

The first movement, ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ (From Dawn to Noon on the Sea) began with a pedal B, played pp on the double basses and ppp on the timpani, with two harps and rising figures on muted cellos and violas creating the pre-dawn atmosphere which then brightened as solos on the oboe (Frank Rosenwein) and English horn (Robert Walters), played over descending string tremolos, marked the rising of the sun. The tempo sped up, and the softly trilling second violins, along with repetitive figures on the violas, cellos and solo harp (Lisa Wellbaum), conveyed the feeling of gently rising and falling waves, and swaying wind and horn motifs suggested the sparkling sunlight and gentle winds on the water’s surface. Later in this movement there were notable contributions from principal violin (William Preucil) and trumpet (Michael Sachs).

Debussy’s portrait of the sea became less calm in the second movement, ‘Jeux de vagues’ (Play of the Waves) and still more agitated in the final movement, ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ (Dialogue of Wind and Sea). These changes in aspect were highlighted by the percussion section, headed by principal Richard Weiner, which played an increasingly significant role as the work progressed. The cymbals, triangle and glockenspiel added to the playful atmosphere in the second movement, and the bass drum and tam-tam helped to paint a darker picture in the concluding movement.

The strings were outstanding throughout the performance as, together with the harps, they carried most of the burden of portraying the sea itself. Their playing was precise and their sound lush and sonorous. However, it was the winds and, increasingly as the piece went on, the brass, that gave the music the brilliant accents that make it one of the most colourfully orchestrated works in the entire symphonic repertory.

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