A New Century
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No.15 in a minor, Opus 132 (1825) [40:04]
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Amériques (1921) [22:05]
Johannes Maria STAUD (b. 1974)
Stromab (2017) [18:35]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Aus Italien (1886) [43:15]
Bernd Richard DEUTSCH (b. 1977)
Okeanos (2015) [29:48]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.3 in c minor, Opus 44 (1929) [34:14]
Paul Jacobs (organ)
Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. 2017-2019, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio
Reviewed as downloads and CD
THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA TCO0001-3 SACD [3 discs: 188:01]
The Cleveland Orchestra enters the deluxe, long-box-set fray with a commanding release of recent concert performances, though each disc is also available separately as a download. Through printed box or download, it comes with a massive book full of detailed notes, full-color pictures, and written perspectives on the orchestra and its history. It is a spectacular package/design, and it is truly a love letter to the class act that is the Cleveland Orchestra. Of special value is an essay by music director Franz Welser-Möst which passionately argues why music matters. His closing thought in this booklet essay sums it up: "Medicine gives and sustains life. Education and learning move us forward. But the arts tell us who we are."
Welser-Möst starts this collection boldly with a transcription of Beethoven's String Quartet No.15, with doubling of the cello line in selected places by the double basses, presumably at the conductor's discretion. This sort of adaptation has been frequently over the years to other quartets with varying levels of success. I've not heard it done previously with this composition, and it's fascinating. Some parts work better than others, but if it is approached without the expectation that it will mimic a string quartet performance, it is compelling listening.
The octave-doubled bass line makes an immediate impression at the beginning of the work, widening the music's horizon to an epic scale, and there is a quiet concentration here that really caught my ear. Instead of a more traditional vibrato-laden sound, the strings of the Cleveland Orchestra play with a tense purity, fueling the sudden tumble that erupts in the first violins. One could argue that instead of the entire section, perhaps the concertmaster could have been given this violin line as a solo - which is, in fact, what Welser-Möst does in the finale, and that's what I thought on my first couple of listens, but the more I listen to this, the more convinced I am by the whole section playing it.
As the movement briskly evolves, the extra heft of the Cleveland Orchestra's unified strings translates this music to large scale and generates a thrilling momentum. Perhaps this orchestra can make this music work where others might not, simply because it has long been a part of the Cleveland style to make music as if the orchestra were a large chamber ensemble. The players truly listen to each other, constantly adjusting to make their sound unified and coherent. Nonetheless, there is no aping of a quartet performance here. Welser-Möst treats it as a newly-discovered symphonic work, and makes it feel in the first movement, particularly, that it is in exactly the format it should be.
The second movement is friendlier and more playful, though the expanded bass range helps shade the moments of tension that remind us the work's argument is by no means settled. Again, the sheer style of this orchestra's strings offers a deceptively easy mastery of this music, moving from elegance to intensity fluidly and instantaneously. That style is influenced by the intimacy of Severance Hall, a gorgeous Art Deco wonder which seats only just over 1900 people in a clear yet warm acoustic. These recordings were made live in concert with patching to remove extraneous noise and applause. Based on my own experiences of hearing this orchestra play in Severance Hall, I believe they capture its sound admirably, even providing a golden halo to the hurdy-gurdy-like passages in the second movement of the Beethoven. Indeed, these recordings, engineered by Gintas Norvila, assisted by Cean Carmichael, and produced by Martha de Francisco, capture the true sound of Severance better than any previous recordings ever have.
The ultimate test of this string orchestra approach was always going to be the work's vast slow movement, the Heilige Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanks). Beethoven wrote it as he was recuperating from serious illness. Reviewing this at a moment when most of the world is hunkering down from the COVID19 virus, its serious solitude can strike deep, but this is the part of the performance I have struggled with the most. Welser-Möst insists on keeping this music moving along at a tempo which is arguably quicker than Beethoven's stated "molto adagio." Traditional quartet versions tend to run from sixteen to nineteen minutes; Welser-Möst clocks in at 13:52.
Sometimes a more flowing concept of an adagio can open up new wells of emotion. Take, for instance, what Nikolaus Harnoncourt did with the slow movement of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony when he recorded it with the Vienna Philharmonic. Such an approach can force the listener to form a new conception of the music. After several hearings, I can't say I'm completely won over, but I understand what the conductor is doing, letting the music sing in an unforced, intimate manner instead of treating it as a visionary Bruckner or Mahler adagio.
The brief fourth movement doesn't particularly benefit from the expansion of scale to string orchestra, though the finale gains a potent sternness. Welser-Möst restrains the final presto to keep the increased scale from turning the rushing notes muddy. Overall, this translation from string quartet to string orchestra is not an unqualified success, though the benefits are enough to make it worthwhile food for thought. Considering that many other late Beethoven quartets have been given this treatment, it would be interesting to see an entire set of them, and conductors more willing to go after the visionary element can turn the Heilige Dankgesang into something to behold.
One of the hallmarks of Welser-Möst's programming in Cleveland has been startling and illuminating juxtapositions of repertory. On the first disc in this set, we go from the introspective Beethoven quartet to Edgard Varèse's outwardly-focused Amériques. Instead of the limited palette of strings, we now hear full orchestra with exotic percussion, including the rarely-heard "lion's roar," a drum with a pierced head that creates a roaring sound when the leather string running through the drum head is rubbed.
Some recordings of Amériques in recent years have reverted to the composer's original unedited score, part of the Urtext craze of the last fifty years, as if every composer were Bruckner, needing rescuing from ill-conceived revisions. Well, Varèse wasn't Bruckner, and he was right to trim some excess from this score. Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders rightly opt for the revised score from the late 1920s, which better focuses the piece. It starts off quietly with a sense of evocation that almost sounds like Debussy, but that changes as Varèse evokes the sounds and ideas that hit him when he moved to New York City after abandoning his French homeland. The aforementioned lion's roar and other vivid instrumental details were inspired by the Bronx Zoo, and a hand-crank siren evokes city police and fire vehicles.
This isn't a literal tone-poem, however; rather, those concrete sounds inspired a free-ranging orchestral fantasy where Varèse found his raucous voice as a composer. The sound-world here is far removed from the Beethoven, written less than a century earlier, yet it works because both composers were using past musical styles as gateways to new worlds.
Welser-Möst exquisitely sifts the lower-end dynamics of this piece, making the quiet parts something more than mere preludes to the noisy stuff, but as the noisy stuff goes, the percussion is well-balanced. For instance, in the recording by Ludovic Morlot (Seattle Symphony Media: SSM1006), the lion's roar is almost lost as the siren dominates everything. Here, siren and lion are more equal. Those wanting the wow-factor for the siren will have to look elsewhere. Here, it is just one percussion sound among many, rather "buried in the mix" as it were.
The style of this recording, however, does not suggest that a lot of mixing was happening here. Rather, the main sound depends on the hall microphones picking up the overall blended sound of the orchestra. That makes this recording also quite different from the commercial recording made by Welser-Möst's predecessor, Christoph von Dohnányi, in 1993. That Decca recording (US release: London 443 172-2) was made in Severance Hall, but with a recording-studio approach and numerous microphones. The balances are heavily engineered and stitched together, though with great care and class. Anyone wanting to hear every last detail of the score would be well advised to investigate the Dohnányi recording for that reason. This recording, though, gives us the real sound of Severance, from an audience point of view, and that feels quite different, less abstract, less aggressive, more poetic.
The whole orchestra is dazzling in precision and glitter. Welser-Möst characteristically keeps a lid on the final climax, barely letting the siren be heard, and not driving the volume level as hard as most performances. Again, it would seem that Welser-Möst has a corrective course in mind: subduing the noisy, sensational aspects of the piece and pointing out the evocative power of its quieter moments. It's a valuable point to be made, though other recordings offer more spectacle.
The second disc in the set starts off with the 2018 US premiere performance of Stromab ("Downstream"), by Johannes Maria Staud, a former Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer fellow with the orchestra. That program has run for over twenty years and has featured some brilliant imaginations. While this work was composed after Staud's position in Cleveland, it fulfills the promise of his early work with an adventurous and exciting excursion, co-commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Royal Danish Orchestra, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and Carnegie Hall. After reviewing the premiere for MusicWeb International's sister site Seen & Heard International, I was delighted to have the chance to revisit this intriguing piece.
While some thorny modern scores unintentionally come across as soundtracks to a horror movie, this one does it slyly and knowingly. Inspired by a short story by Algernon Blackwood, the piece depicts an escalation of horror from unease to onslaughts of terror as a couple of travelers on the Danube River become swept up by mysterious and malevolent forces. The composer is less painting the story, however, than using it as a frame of reference for his musical chemistry.
Stromab opens quietly but with great tension, which will only escalate over the next eighteen minutes. A moment or so in, the solo tuba enters with an angular line, and for the next couple of minutes, it seems like this is going to be a de rigueur modern piece, dissonant and aggressive in style, but then trumpets and flutter-tongued horns enter with a twisted chorale, and the piece begins to morph into something more original. It isn't a tone poem in the Lisztian sense; there are no play-by-play descriptions of action. One could call it a psychological study of terror, but that sounds too clinical, too serious. It's more as if Staud is telling a scary story without words, and a fine piece of storytelling it is.
After the first crunchy climax of brass and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink percussion section, Stromab enters a quieter but far more uncanny section, where the strings at times slowly sink in pitch, or, occasionally, even rise. The sense of unease grows tighter as the dynamic level drops to a whisper, haloed by an aura of soft percussion. When this tension breaks, the brass take off, running in terror. At one point, there is a shoot-out of sorts between low brass and a battery of timpani which is a sonic highlight of this entire set. After a brief return to uncanniness, new percussive charges attack in a syncopated passage so sardonic it almost evokes Frank Zappa. At the very end, the piece reverts to quietness as the solo clarinet rises up in a tremulous question mark. What a breath of fresh air to hear a strange-textured piece that uses those sounds in a way that a general audience can instantly grasp, without being fed reheated old-fashioned platitudes. It's brilliant, and it's one of the must-hears of this set.
Next comes the early Richard Strauss tone poem/suite Aus Italien. At the time of the live concert, I dismissed the piece as immature Strauss not worthy of being revived as often as it is, and closer study of the piece has not greatly altered that perception. There are greater works by less well-known composers which badly need our attention. But that the live presentation resulted in this recording makes it more worthwhile. Strauss was a major composer, and considering that few recordings of Aus Italien are in any company's active catalogue these days, its presence here is justified.
What makes it even more justified is that this performance comes to us from an orchestra with a long tradition of performing Richard Strauss under a conductor who has a particular knack for Strauss. Interestingly, this is not the orchestra's first go-round recording the piece. Now largely forgotten, a recording was made in 1989, with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting, by Decca (US release: London 425 941-2). In many ways, though, the Ashkenazy recording could hardly be more different. For one thing, instead of being recorded in the intimate acoustic of Severance Hall, it was put down in the Masonic Auditorium, a much larger hall only a couple of miles away from Severance, and where the orchestra often played before Severance was built. It has a big, boomy acoustic which prompted the Decca engineers to tame the sound by using a host of microphones to capture the sound of different sections--sometimes with bright highlighting--and then mix it all together. This artificial sound exaggerates the instrumental colors, though that approach works well enough for Ashkenazy's breezy interpretation, emphasizing the travelogue aspect of Strauss' youthful evocations of the Italian landscape.
Welser-Möst approaches the piece quite differently, emphasizing its classical quasi-symphonic scope, and relating it to Strauss' later, greater pieces. The new recording, made in Severance during concerts, puts its focus further back, as one would hear it in the hall, a more blended and balanced sound than the earlier Decca recording. Major labels rarely recorded in Severance back in the 1980s because of the relative dryness of the acoustic, but that aspect of the hall was greatly improved by the new stage built in 2000, which allowed the bloom of sound we hear on this recording.
The first movement of the work flirts with breaking through to "real" Strauss, particularly in Welser-Möst's hands. The inner movements, if less forward-looking, are still effective. The biggest failing of the piece itself is the finale, where Strauss mistook Luigi Denza's pop song "Funiculì, Funiculà" for a folk song, and used it for local color. As local color goes, Strauss neither made it his own nor had much fun with it. Ashkenazy goes for fast and bright, which is arguably more effective than Welser-Möst's attempt to make it sound soberly symphonic, but either way, it's a weak ending to, at best, a formative piece.
Turning to the final disc in this set (or the third download in the series, if one is collecting it piece-by-piece), we meet the Cleveland Orchestra's current Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer fellow, Bernd Richard Deutsch. The first work of Deutsch's fellowship is pending performance by the orchestra in the near future, but he was welcomed in 2019 with a performance of his organ concerto Okeanos, with guest soloist Paul Jacobs. This recording of that premiere (which I reviewed for Seen & Heard International) captures the delight of a piece that bodes well for the future.
"Okeanos" is the ancient Greek word for ocean, and this piece is a study of the traditional four elements, but as I said in my review, Deutsch makes use of a full range of styles and gestures, from movie music to abstract modernism, and makes it organic (no pun intended).
The first movement of Okeanos evokes water. Strings murmur against held out notes in the organ before glints of percussion and winds offer a wide range of muted colors. Paul Jacobs begins tickling the ear with his first entrance, which lays out the composer's framework embracing a wide range of styles, yet incorporating all in a unified voice. While the piece has some great concertante moments, it also integrates organ and orchestra to an amazing degree. After the slow introduction, the second half of the movement takes off at a tremendous clip, dramatically playing off organ and full orchestra. At full roar, it is imposing, for the organ in Severance Hall has its pipes directly behind the orchestra, blending into the orchestral sound as a super voice. At the peak of the movement, the roar is snuffed out, and a halo of soft shimmering is left behind. In the concert I attended, the audience gasped in delight at this moment. That isn't audible here, but the impression remains of a sense of wonder that new, gorgeous sounds can still be discovered in such abundance.
The second movement moves like the wind of its title. Jacobs' unflappable virtuosity sails throughout this volatile toccata, soon joined by orchestral eddies. Welser-Möst is kept just as busy as the soloist coordinating and balancing Deutsch's quicksilver turns of direction. The composer's sense of color is scintillating, and the performance and recording do it full justice. This is modern music that is interesting, compelling, and great fun. The organ solos in parts of this movement might remind some listeners of the calliope in The Beatles' song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," only here the fractured funhouse effect isn't achieved through editing--it's played live!
The slow movement of this substantial concerto brings the solidity of earth, in this case, mountain ranges of tone clusters on the organ with percussion underlying. The quieter moments alternately brood and meditate. Tonal passages get undermined by jazzy blue notes and slowly sliding pitches, building tension up to a volcanic return of the tone clusters near the end of the movement, now with full orchestra voice behind it.
The fiery finale sizzles. The coordination between soloist and conductor is tight, allowing orchestra and organist to shoot sparks of intricate musical interplay back and forth. This music lives in a word that seems equidistant between Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony, and a Danny Elfman movie score. I remember watching Paul Jacobs at the console of the organ, looking like a marionette with arms and legs flailing about, but considering that the organ sound envelopes the orchestra in Severance Hall's layout, one realizes he's the puppeteer in all this wizardry, in perfect coordination with the conductor, and masterful is the only word that fits. This piece and its presentation here are a knockout, one of many highlights of this set.
The collection ends with yet another highlight, a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No.3 that sets a new standard for an oft-maligned piece. Writing music that was both acerbic and elegant, Prokofiev had a distinctive voice from early on, but it is interesting that for the early decades of his career, he was a master of masks. First, he wore the mask of futurist in such pieces as his Opus 11 Toccata for piano, then he sought to out-Stravinsky Stravinsky with the Scythian Suite, be an arch neo-classicist in his Classical Symphony, play the absurdist in his opera The Love for Three Oranges, and take on brutalism in his unloved (even by the composer) Second Symphony.
The Third Symphony has often been dismissed as a noisy sequel to the Second, and some prominent recordings have treated it as such, with recorded sound that exaggerates the noise factor. Others have made more sense of the piece, but I feel that Welser-Möst may be the first to see it for what it is: the first major work where this composer began to let the masks slip and let us see glimpses of the human behind the façade. As such, this is an important recording.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Erich Leinsdorf, and Claudio Abbado all made fast, aggressive recordings of this symphony in the 1960s. A similarly brusque and driven performance by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin was caught on the wing in 1975 (Philips 438 284-2) and released later. While certainly exciting, it hardly sorts out Prokofiev's vibrant textures and tries even less to sort out the music's complex ambivalence. In the 1980s, Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos CHAN 8401) brought more weight to the music, giving due to its substance, though the blowzy early digital sound is fatiguing. Theodore Kuchar brought incisive presence to his 1994 recording with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (Naxos 8.553054), though his engineers let him down with a noisy recording that is just as fatiguing as the Chandos.
Perhaps the first recording to do full justice to Prokofiev's Third was Riccardo Muti's 1991 outing with the Philadelphia Orchestra (Philips 432 992-2). It is a dramatic and explosive performance that provides ample drive while allowing the music space to speak. It has held for some time as my reference recording, the hasty and messy Valery Gergiev/London Symphony performance not even giving it a run for the money.
The present recording offers a new perspective, subtly delving deeper into the piece. Without underplaying the explosive dynamics at key points of the piece, Welser-Möst makes more of the quieter moments of this piece than anyone before him. He finds more of a through-line in the first movement than Muti, who pushes his two basic tempi to extremes. Welser-Möst keeps his opening onslaught under control, with an implacable sense of power-in-reserve that arguably is more unsettling than the funhouse approach of most previous conductors. That the following music is kept in a tempo that doesn't completely relax holds the music's argument together. This isn't just a scary tale. It's a human one.
If the Philadelphia Orchestra leaves most of its competitors behind in the dust for sheer refinement of sound in the slow movement of Muti's recording, the Cleveland Orchestra can barely make out the fabulous Philadelphians in its rearview mirror. The poise, the sense of wonder in this performance makes this music speak in a way it never has to me before. It's little short of stunning.
The scherzo is equally astonishing for the way Welser-Möst and his players have rethought the string glissandos that slide all over the place. They are usually treated as quick shrieks, again, going for a horror-movie approach. Here, the glissandos are a little slower, a lot quieter, less pointed, and, amazingly, this makes them far more disturbing than the traditional manner. The funhouse swoop is cartoonish and silly. These slides--played like this--destabilize the sense of pitch in this music, which brings far more of a sinking feeling in one's gut than simple shrieks. They ooze around in slithery whispers that are one of the creepiest things I've ever heard. Kudos to the orchestra and conductor for taking this music to a new level.
The finale is the weakest of the four movements, and no-one has found a way around that, including the present performance. Welser-Möst sets a deliberate pace to make the movement at least counterbalance the earlier movements. I think it works better than rushing through, as many do. Whatever the case, the new stature given the first three movements makes this essential listening.
This lovingly crafted box set is a treasure, and a welcome return to what is promised to be a regular schedule of releases. As Franz Welser-Möst says, music tells us who we are, and because of that, we need to hear the discoveries and breakthroughs being made in Cleveland. They don't just entertain there. They find new worlds.
Mark Sebastian Jordan