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Seen and Heard Interntional Concert Review

The Cleveland Orchestra in New York (IV): Beethoven, Schubert, Berg, Radu Lupu (piano), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, February 5, 2005 (BH)


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 (1805-06)
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “Unfinished,” D. 759 (1822)
Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1914-15)

In their final evening of four, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra inscribed a huge arc, as if a burning arrow shot from 1805 landed squarely a century later in 1915. Starting with Beethoven, and then passing through Schubert and Berg, the program was arranged in the reverse order that some might have preferred, but Welser-Möst had something a bit different to show us.

During the week, three different friends remarked that of the five piano concerti, the Fourth was their favorite, and it was easy to see why. The first movement has a long and dramatic cadenza that was one of the peaks of Lupu’s entire traversal. The gorgeous second movement contained some enthralling pianissimos that had the audience quiet beyond belief, and seemed over far too soon. The galloping finale had everyone onstage in high spirits, with tempi slightly more sprightly than in some of the previous concerti. The program notes describe this one as the renegade of the bunch (probably the reason it was programmed out of sequence) and Radu Lupu and Welser-Möst made it sound modern in the way some Beethoven inevitably does.

As the second half of the program began, the entire stage was teeming with personnel, waiting patiently for their role in the pulsating Berg pieces, which were to follow immediately after the Schubert Eighth. There must be many who adore the “Unfinished,” but this is one listener who could give it a rest for a few decades. (Schubert’s songs are another matter.) But if you’re forced to hear this symphony, you might as well bask in a balanced, nuanced reading like this one, and some terrific woodwind and strings were just the most obvious pluses. As the final chord faded away, Welser-Möst held his hands in the air as a few soft “bravo’s” escaped, as well as a smattering of applause, before the tingling, spooky percussion that begins the Berg took over.

It has now been ninety years since Berg wrote his Three Pieces. Ponder that for a moment. Welser-Möst and this racehorse of an orchestra didn’t try to make them glance back at say, Richard Strauss (as Levine does so successfully), but pushed them completely forward, making them sound even more grinding and brutal than some works written today. The ensemble responded with some truly frightening sounds that, notably, hadn’t really appeared in the previous three concerts, even in the fiery Shostakovich.

How the second half might have progressed if the conductor had made a complete, standard break between the two pieces? I allowed myself to daydream about the time that would have elapsed in ovations with the conductor on and offstage a few times, the break while extra chairs were brought in, the percussion being set up and adjusted, the murmurs of shared pleasure after the Schubert, the noisy exits from a handful of people leaving before the Berg, and finally more applause greeting Welser-Möst on his return as he turned for the downbeat. All of this would have added an extra ten minutes or so between the works – time that was completely eliminated. One might chuckle that Welser-Möst had “finished” the Eighth, but the truth is that by eliminating a larger break, we were forced to consider the two works in tandem, emphasizing the creative continuum that Berg followed, whether or not all listeners choose to acknowledge it. This is excellent programming, and yes, perhaps a bit of a gimmick, but a good one.

As the Marsch, the last of the Three Pieces, reached its climactic gunshot, I wondered how many in this Saturday-night audience were “just wanting a lovely concert of classical music at Carnegie Hall,” and instead stumbled into this intellectual mini-seminar without realizing it. (To be fair, there were very few seen exiting.) In any case, there was a bonbon waiting. After quieting the crowd, Welser-Möst gave some appreciative thanks to New York, and then launched into the sole encore of their stand, a sumptuous Emperor Waltz. With slight ritards introducing each refrain, and the same spectacular cohesiveness that had marked each night, the piece reclaimed all the drama and fun it deserves, with not an eighth-note taken for granted.

Bruce Hodges


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)