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The Cleveland Orchestra in New York (2):  Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 17.10.2007 (BH)

Debussy: Ibéria, from Images (1905-08)
Matthias Pintscher: Five Orchestral Pieces (1997) (New York Premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1812)

Gaining steam, this second of three Cleveland Orchestra evenings boasted arguably the triumph of their entire stay: a brilliantly played Debussy Ibéria, precisely etched and bursting with sunlight.  Razor-sharp attacks in the opening bars signaled the orchestra’s power, and immaculate playing dovetailed neatly with Franz Welser-Möst’s meticulous attention to the score.  One could only marvel at the complete fluency of the horns, faced with Debussy’s swirling figures at a treacherously fast speed.  In the second section, “The Fragrances of the Night,” Welser-Möst perfectly captured the hesitant, ambiguous mood, as Peter Laki calls it, “music that seems to be hovering in the air, never touching the ground or reaching a clear closure.”  The rousing final section showed the ensemble in fiery precision, and I honestly cannot recall ever hearing this work done with such finesse.

Matthias Pintscher wrote his Five Orchestral Pieces when he was just 27 years old, an impressive achievement.  His command of orchestration is perfectly suited to the highly polished approach of this conductor, who should be encouraged to program it with the Schoenberg Five Pieces, Op. 16.  As in the John Adams work the previous night, Pintscher likes to test the outer limits of an orchestra’s sound palette, particularly the percussion section.  Dynamic ranges are huge.  At times the ensemble hovers at barely audible levels, with minute changes in timbre or texture, all made perceptible by a very quite audience.  The second section combines high pitches in the basses with huge fff splatters in the rest of the orchestra.  The extreme, turn-on-a-dime contrasts show a film editor’s mind.  The cumulative effect is of like watching a movie of dust falling, thousands of tiny sound specks alighting in mysterious formation.  The third section, marked tempo flessible, is even quieter, with ominous chirps, scrapes, and nervous rasps, until the mood is upended with brutal collisions of brass and percussion.  The fourth, the shortest of the five at about two minutes, has more sibilant chattering among the instruments, and in the fifth, the two harps (separated onstage by about 20 feet) offered playful antiphonal pools, slashed with outbursts from the rest of the group.  Late in the movement the english horn makes its way into the mix as the work gradually dies out in silence. 

At intermission, a friend commented on the group’s ability to play “loud yet refined,” a quality that was very evident in the Pintscher and even more so in the Beethoven Seventh Symphony.  If overall the piece seemed a bit anticlimactic, it was solely because the execution was not at the very top of the ensemble’s own very high standard, as in either the Pintscher or the near-miraculous Debussy.  A few minor tempi disagreements produced some smudged sections, and the final movement was taken at a breathless tempo that seemed to induce anxiety rather than exhilaration.  All was forgiven in the final pages, however, as the group charged back with rambunctious urgency.


Bruce Hodges


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