Cleveland Orchestra shines with Viennese program on Carnegie’s opening night

Fri Oct 04, 2019 at 2:03 pm
Anne-Sophie Mutter, Lynn Harrell and Yefim Bronfman performed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Franz Welser-Möst leading the Cleveland Orchestra in Carnegie Hall’s season-opening concert Thursday night. Photo: Chris Lee

With every touring performance, the Cleveland Orchestra further cements its reputation as one of America’s premiere ensembles. For the second time in 15 years, the Ohio orchestra took center stage on one of New York’s splashiest cultural occasions, opening Carnegie Hall’s season with a strong gala concert Thursday night.

The evening began with a light item, Otto Nicolai’s Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor. An odd but entertaining little concert opener, this overture starts with what sounds like a pastoral scene, betraying no hint of the farce to follow later on. Led by music director Franz Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra gave an enchanting performance of the piece, ideally paced and exquisitely balanced.

The middle two items on Thursday’s brief program were both Beethoven, and both felt out of place, even if this is a Beethoven anniversary year. Anne-Sophie Mutter, the violin soloist for the Romance in G Major, was not at her most accurate, showing issues of intonation and bow control, yet still achieving the splendid tone that makes her such a joy to hear: warm and gauzy at times, her sound at its best opens up into full, flowing honey. Mutter’s approach was thoroughly Romantic, which is not necessarily out of bounds as an interpretation, but her extremely free and sentimental rendition felt at odds with the tasteful restraint of the accompaniment. On the whole, the selection itself just seemed odd, a slight piece for such a star soloist on a gala program.

In Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, Mutter’s approach was more reserved and more clean, completely in time but still keenly expressive. Yefim Bronfman’s playing of the piano part was clarity itself, with a crisp, percussive attack, staying pure and steady in his passagework and crafting tight but breathing phrases.

Lynn Harrell was in some ways an obvious choice for the cello part, having been at one time Cleveland’s principal, and having gone on to a legendary career as one of America’s great cellists. Sadly, he no longer has the technique needed for the part, struggling with intonation and choking his sound in Thursday’s performance. The orchestra, at least, played brilliantly, with a light, buoyant approach, even if the ensemble, surprisingly, got a little ragged late in the Rondo.

Closing the program was Robert Mandell’s 1990 concert suite of Der Rosenkavalier, which proved to be worth the price of admission all on its own. 

The Cleveland Orchestra is a remarkably supple instrument, and Welser-Möst guided them brilliantly, drawing out a sumptuous sound and shaping rich, curving phrases in the passionate opening bars that portray the Marschallin’s romance with Octavian. His driving pace made a few passages feel rushed, notably the early statement of Sophia and Octavian’s love theme, which could have used more room to breathe. For the most part, though, the brisk tempo was thrilling, keeping the music constantly fresh.

This suite focuses especially on the waltzes, which have never felt more natural than they did under Welser-Möst on Thursday night. He drew stark contrasts between crashing, whirling excitement and rapturous quiet. The final statement of the love theme, leading into the closing bars, was bewitching.

For an encore, the orchestra offered the other most famous Strauss: Johann Strauss Jr.’s Furioso-Polka Quasi Galopp, a lively, charming end to the concert.

Since Welser-Möst became Cleveland’s music director in 2002, the orchestra has consistently been one of the most polished ensembles in America, a model of symphonic sound, but his performances as a conductor have often felt cold. Not so on Thursday: his exciting, rich readings of the music made the orchestra gleam even brighter. Welser-Möst just signed a contract extension that will keep him in Cleveland through 2027, and if Friday’s performance is any indication, this partnership will only continue to get better.

The Cleveland Orchestra will perform 8 p.m. Friday at Carnegie Hall, playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch with soloist Yefim Bronfman.

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