The Clevelanders Visit San Francisco: Welser-Möst Conducts Mendelssohn, Saariaho, and Shostakovich at Davies Hall

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Franz Welser-Möst. Photo Roger Mastroianni.
Franz Welser-Möst. Photo Roger Mastroianni.

Davies Hall, San Francisco
Sunday, April 15, 2012
The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, “Scottish”
Saariaho – Orion
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 54

“These people look too thin to be from Cleveland!,” growled a reptilian voice behind me. A pretty safe comment to make about almost any American city these days—but as the Cleveland musicians took the stage last Sunday, I couldn’t help thinking there was something inherently unified, lean and reserved about their demeanor.

Orchestras tend to exhibit their nature just by sitting. Ormandy’s Philadelphians of old, arrayed like satisfied horn-rimmed deans at a faculty meeting, would tune up proudly in lush, seductive sonorities—though none from the pieces about to be played. The New York Philharmonic’s atmospherics were always different. A certain crustiness and general slouch suggested that they’d practice whatever  passage they damn blaring well pleased, whenever they pleased, and that you’d better be pleased—or else!

Such characteristics tend to persist over time, so it is no surprise to encounter George Szell’s swiss watch of an orchestra still refined, still European in demeanor and disinclined to do anything showy forty-two years after his death. Indeed, as the musicians tuned up in Davies Hall, the violas were soft, the general din kept to a minimum and the woodwinds pure light cream, like Vienna’s. But I also thought to myself, the players seemed mysteriously uncomfortable, as though in some sort of professional strait-jacket….

It is the misfortune of Franz Welser-Möst to be one of those conductors who does not immediately radiate personal warmth. I cannot speak to how pervasive this impression might be for those who know him, but it is not helped musically by the fact that he has trained the Cleveland Orchestra, as a matter of conviction, to play entirely without portamento. Mendelssohn may be the perfect match for a person of gentle reserve and noble impulses. And indeed the work appears to be a favorite of this conductor. (Welser-Möst recorded the “Scottish“ Symphony in 1993, with the London Philharmonic). But despite the intricate Mozartian passagework and classical balances in the piece, even Mendelssohn will not sound like itself totally bereft of portamento’s pushme/pullyou. This is music of quietly loving warmth and a certain “nobilmente“ which prefigures even Elgar.

Welser-Möst performed the work with huge forces onstage. No early-music revisionist delusions here! The piece began with a fine, just-this-side-of-eerie, evocation of the past as legend. Every tempo and transition was perfect, all balances still chamber-like, each moment of propulsion snapping forward just right with those bumptious Scottish-sounding grace notes that tend to begin phrases in Mendelssohn. The clarinet melody in the Scherzo became a stunning bird-call, its last note held and colored. Each string passage in the slow movement emerged velvet-beautiful and heart-felt—or would have—if Welser-Möst had permitted a touch of European emotional note-creep.

Welser-Möst even found something coquettish in the dog-trot portion of the finale’s development. The final processional was as perfect as I’ve ever heard it. And pianissimi were shockingly quiet and rapt, delivered by the lightest finger touch imaginable.  (Welser-Möst could be a hand model, so well-sculpted and delicate were his fingers). And yet? Is the word “stillborn“ too conclusive? Perhaps. It was certainly an exciting performance. But you wouldn’t want to watch a baseball game where nobody ever slid into home plate, and every batter making it to the next base landed perfectly on both feet. Something about Welser-Möst seemed to inhibit the proceedings. He looked throughout like a cross between a schoolmaster and a sadistic dentist.

That said, I had no quarrel with Saariaho’s “Orion“ or its performance. Saariaho takes up the mystery of outer space where Holst left off, I found myself thinking. The piece is in three short swirling movements, influenced by “spectralism“ and indeed sounding spectral. It is as though you are in a space capsule moving with steady rhythm and evocative textures through an astronomical winter, passing by stars and planets as though they were leafless trees. The piece is sonorous and never ugly. It ultimately galvanizes real momentum and ends appealingly with an electrical-sounding fadeout. I hope we hear more from her.

Bringing the evening to a close, Welser-Möst led the Clevelanders in the Shostakovich Sixth symphony. As with the Eleventh, Shostakovich’s Sixth is really all about its first movement—one of those creepy, static, “waiting for History“ experiences that could chill the fur off a Kremlin guard’s hat.  Structurally, one could argue that it climaxes too soon. The proof is that audiences always expect the movement to end about five minutes before it does. But nothing was chillier than the orchestral trills as Welser-Möst voiced them. A perfect match, you’d think? Given what I’ve written above? Well, not quite. Here, in a more splayed-out piece, it became clear that Welser-Möst was too rigid and vertical in his phrasing. Climaxes that should have been apocalyptic were in a strait-jacket and sounded merely heavy and loud. The piece ends with massive oompah’s, and these were certainly effectively done, but it was interesting to observe that the audience had a delayed reaction after each work the orchestra performed.

It was as if something they disliked about being there prevented them from applauding, until they reminded themselves to do so.  Once past that moment, the curtain calls were loud and effective. But the sense remained. These people on stage and their conductor didn’t seem to like each other very much. Even if Franz Welser-Möst—who bears an unpleasant nickname—was in fact, on this occasion, so very much “Better than Most“!

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