Cleveland Orchestra Mahler 3

Symphony No.3 in D minor

Yvonne Naef (mezzo-soprano)

Trinity Boys’ Choir
Ladies of The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus

The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 30 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Clevelanders haven’t been to the Proms for a number of years – Christoph von Dohnányi’s last visit with the Orchestra was back in the 20th-century. So this was the first opportunity for Londoners to experience The Cleveland Orchestra (as it is billed) with its new music director, Franz Welser-Möst, who took over in September 2002.

I heard the partnership at the Edinburgh Festival last year – all three concerts are reviewed on Classical Source – and this year union obstacles were resolved over Internet broadcasts (last year’s stumbling block for the Proms). This visit to the Proms came at the end of a short tour that had included three concerts at the Lucerne Festival and one in Ludwigsburg.

Welser-Möst – as anyone who has seen his appearances with Zürich Opera at the Royal Festival Hall (also reviewed on Classical Source) – has become much more assured on the platform since the bizarre (and unwarranted) critical drubbing while heading the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1990s.

Wesler-Möst is as unshakeable as Dohnányi in pursuit of musical values. Nor is he overtly emotional in his manner or in the music-making he encourages from his players. He allows the music to speak for itself. Yes, the massive opening movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony could have been earthier, but there is no doubting the clarity of Mahler’s minute markings and instrumental touches.

While the opening horn fanfare (so reminiscent not only of the finales of Beethoven’s “Choral” Brahms’s First symphonies, but also Hans Rott’s Symphony, which seems cribbed a great deal by Mahler – when will we get a Proms performance of that work?) was beautifully burnished rather than a raucous call from the depths. The percussion had a field day, two players disappearing for the off-stage side drum tattoo (behind closed doors and a little too dry-sounding) which heralds the recapitulation of the horn theme. Later, in the third movement, principal trumpet Michael Sachs positioned himself in the Gallery for a suitably ethereal posthorn solo, momentarily interrupted by a Prommer collapsing with a distinct thud (quite audible on Radio 3 I understand).

I certainly got the tingle factor a couple of times in the first movement in the big climaxes, never utterly overwhelming in Welser-Möst’s finely-controlled and well-behaved version, but expertly sculpted. The second movement, in its evocation of flowers and meadows, was suitably light, and, in the third movement, the animals of the forest were suitably quietened by the aforementioned posthorn.

Nietzsche again raised his head. Following Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra from Zinman and the Tonhalle the previous night, Mahler, in his fourth movement “What the night tells me”, sets Zarathustra’s most famous words. Yvonne Naef was appropriately rich in tone, while her golden dress cut through Mahler’s night-time chords. Then to the ladies of the Chorus and the Trinity Boys’ Choir for the setting of “What the angels tell me”. Slightly diffused in diction, although following Welser-Möst’s request for pianissimo, the choral contribution need more attack, especially the boys rather insipid bell-imitating.

While not allowing my emotions to become uncontrollable (Haitink’s 1999 BBC Symphony Proms Mahler 3 had me in tears), this was a wonderfully clear performance, one that I enjoyed more than many others, and which also marked the final concert of tuba player Ron Bishop, who got his own bow. He must have gone out on a high. I did.

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