Saturday night’s concert with the Cleveland Orchestra led by Franz Welser-Möst offered an unusual program that will linger in the mind’s ear for a long time to come.
Saturday night’s concert was preceded by a brief tribute to recently retired principle viola Robert Vernon, who offered his modest, soft spoken thanks.
The concert began with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major, the shortest – and arguably, lightest – of his nine symphonies. Welser-Möst’s approach was a model of interpretative rectitude. The performance was a model of structural clarity, well-gauged tempos, sensible phrasing, and the balance between sections one expects from the Clevelanders.
I was a bit surprised that the Beethoven was immediately followed by the intermission. This meant that all three works in Respighi’s Roman triptych (Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals) were played back to back, adding to a second half that lasted well over an hour. But far from being overlong, time flew during the second half of the program.
Respighi pulled out all the stops in his orchestration of these works – particularly Festivals which included organ and off-stage brass. Since the dawn of stereo recording, Respighi’s Roman poems have often been used as “hi-fi” spectaculars. Some recordings, notably Maazel’s recordings of Festivals and Pines with the Cleveland Orchestra, have succeeded better than most. But hearing the works in concert brought to light the limitations of even the finest recordings: none can match the huge dynamic range of the orchestra – from the gossamer pianissimo string arpeggios at the beginning of Fountains (a passage which James Horner adapted in his score for Star Trek III) to the nearly deafening final pages of Festivals and Pines. Even the finest playback equipment is subject to distortion in the louder sections. But while Welser-Möst pushed the orchestra to the limits at the end of Festivals, the sound remained pure and balanced – every strand of orchestration was heard in proper proportion. Throughout the triptych, Welser-Möst’s tempos were well judged – they were not merely suited for each individual portrait, but also within the context of the whole work - and his use of rubato was unerring. Welser-Möst was particularly masterful in the coda of Festivals, where there is a tricky accelerando that most conductors are unable to convincingly execute.
Welser-Möst has been Cleveland’s musical director for nearly a decade and a half now. If anyone had told me in 2002 that Welser-Möst would lead the orchestra in thrilling performances of Respighi’s most famous works, I wouldn’t have believed it. His predecessor, Christoph von Dohnányi, would have turned his kapellmeister’s nose up at such stuff. For those who have deigned to conduct the Respighi, the temptation has been to rattle through them as showpieces and nothing more. Welser-Möst demonstrated that there was more to this music than mere bluster, while sacrificing nothing in visceral excitement. For that, he deserves the audience’s thanks – and I believe Respighi, who conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the 1920s, would have been appreciative as well.