Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.9 in C major, D. 944 (1825-6) [57:33]
Ernst KŘENEK (1900-1991)
Static and Ecstatic (1971-2) [19:30]
Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, March 2020, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio
Recorded as 24bit, 96kHz PCM, reviewed as download
THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA TCO0002 SACD [77:03]
“Crisis and Creativity” is the title of André Gremillet's introductory note for this release, and it's the key. This new release from the Cleveland Orchestra offers creative responses to crises from three different centuries: The young but prematurely doomed Franz Schubert escaping from the shadow of Beethoven to create his own wondrous world in his great C major symphony; aged twentieth-century modernist Ernst Křenek framing his eclectic career between poles of order and fantasy in “Static and Ecstatic;” and not least of all the Cleveland Orchestra itself as they played this music in March of 2020 as the world shut down to weather the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Schubert was scheduled for performance the week that the shutdowns reached Ohio in the USA. It was a concert I was scheduled to cover for MusicWeb International's sister site, Seen & Heard International. The orchestra elected to go ahead and record their prepared performance of the work for the microphones and offered a glimpse of the performance in a podcast where music director Franz Welser-Möst talked about feeling the terror of the second movement climax in the context of the pandemic, not knowing when or if he and the orchestra would be able to make music again. At the time of this writing, it has been six months without concerts.
I was particularly eager to hear this performance, because as I've observed Welser-Möst during his tenure in Cleveland, I've watched him change from a promising but sometimes uptight conductor into a subtle master of thoughtful insight. This Schubert performance is the best thing he's done yet, managing to imbue a great but tricky masterpiece with a real sense not of the conductor's personality, but of the composer's. Even more, it carves out a new niche in the history of this work's interpretation.
That history is long and lumpy. There is no convincing evidence the piece was performed in Schubert's lifetime and even early enthusiasts faced outright rebellion from orchestras unwilling to tackle the work's “heavenly lengths” and endless ostinatos. When it was published in 1849 by Breitkopf & Härtel, the well-intentioned editors created a legacy of misunderstanding by changing the introduction's time signature from 2/2 to 4/4 time. For the next century, conductors bent the work out of shape by taking the intro too slowly, forcing an awkward acceleration into the allegro. To showcase the return of that theme at the end of the movement, more gear changing was required to slow back down. Otherwise fine conductors such as Szell (Sony SBK 48268), Walter (Sony 19075923242), Furtwängler (DG 439 832-2), Toscanini (RCA LM-1835), and Barbirolli (Warner 0190295386085) all found themselves in this exaggerated position. The otherwise level-headed Thomas Schippers (Vox CDX 5140) calculated a bizarre experiment in his 1976 Cincinnati recording by starting the intro slower than anyone else, then slowing down instead of speeding up at the end of the intro, then taking off at racehorse speed in the allegro. There had to be a better way.
There was, but only two conductors of this period saw past the distortion and corrected the proportions of this romantic work emerging from the classical traditions of Schubert's youth: Otto Klemperer, in his 1960 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra (EMI CDM 7 63854 2), and - less famously - Jascha Horenstein, whose 1969 concert performance with the Gothenburg Symphony is available on YouTube. They both start the intro flowingly and return to that pace in the coda, without extreme gear shifting. When played like this, the movement emerges as one coherent breath.
Starting with Carlo Maria Giulini in the 1970s (DG 00289 477 9628), more conductors have paced the introduction flowingly, including Slatkin (1988, RCA60174-2-RC), Harnoncourt (1992, Teldec 4509-91184-2), Mackerras (1998, Telarc CD-80502), and Rattle (2005, EMI 0946 3 39382 3 9). Two astute conductors who recorded it slowly, then altered their approach in second recordings were Claudio Abbado (1987, DG 423656-2 and 2011, DG 479 4652) and Christoph von Dohnányi, the latter even stating bluntly in a publicity video for his Philharmonia remake (2015, Signum SIGCD461) that in his first recording in Cleveland (1985, Telarc CD-80110), “I got it wrong.”
Where does Welser-Möst land? It was hard to predict this one, as sometimes his Beethoven is backwards-looking, not to romantic-style performances, but to the lithe classicism of Felix Weingartner. And he has not been much of an advocate for historically-informed approaches to orchestral music, often performing early classical works with a full orchestra. Yet one should never underestimate Welser-Möst's ability to surprise. He has found his strength in recent years in discarding received knowledge about pieces of music and picturing them anew. Lots of musicians pay lip-service to that approach, but Welser-Möst actually does it. The freshness of this performance is delightful, though it may agitate listeners committed to the old-school approach.
Welser-Möst sets a very flowing tempo at the opening, without hurrying. He steadily picks up speed so that he doesn't have to make an awkward acceleration into the allegro. Importantly, he has the strings actually play the note values of the main theme, without unmarked accents, something that isn't always done. The conductor yields slightly for the second theme, establishing flexibility.
Moving from that second theme into the più moto coda is a skillful bit of sleight-of-hand by the conductor, because he has slowed slightly for the second theme. Thus, the speed-up for the coda actually brings us back to the main tempo, instead of taking off in a crazy dash. Why does Welser-Möst do this? Because he wants to take Schubert at his word when the introduction's theme returns at the end. Everyone else slows down for the recollection, even though no such slowdown is suggested in Schubert's score. Welser-Möst keeps going, thrillingly in tempo, phrasing the theme dramatically instead of grandly. The effect is exhilarating.
The second movement is kept poised, singing in long lines, never sagging into a trudge. That alertness helps the buildup of energy toward the crisis point, which must have felt very threatening indeed, under the circumstances in which it was recorded. The tenderness of the slightly slower resumption after the crisis is moving. Special attention must be accorded in this movement to the orchestra's outstanding woodwinds, who are surely the equal of any in the world.
What is some ways is most breathtaking of all in this performance is the scherzo. Its nearly fifteen minutes of running time shows that Welser-Möst decided to be generous with the numerous repeats. That's a potentially dangerous thing. A relentless performance of the movement can make one yearn for the end before you've even reached the trio. But, if anything, here one is tempted to hit repeat. Long gone is the Welser-Möst from early in his career, the one who sometimes did not dare to inflect the notes with anything other than a stiff literalism. Here, instead, is relaxed mastery of the Viennese idiom, the sure hand that has twice directed Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Day concerts. The conductor chooses a supple, dancing tempo, not a brutal powerplay like that amazing but hard-driven Szell recording with Cleveland in 1957. Welser-Möst has his players spring the rhythms deliciously so that the broad tempo never becomes heavy, and he further hangs onto and caresses certain phrases here and there, taking characterization to a whole new level. Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra have never sounded more in love with music than here.
After such intoxicating charm, it would be harsh if Welser-Möst turned off the Viennese gemütlichkeit, and, happily, he does not. This is Schubert, not Beethoven, and the finale shouldn't sound like a relentless machine. Rather, he makes the finale an amiable amble, recalling the spacious finales of the Klemperer and Barbirolli recordings. The finale is also the one major repeat in the work that Welser-Möst skips - thank God - for it is a massive and pointless one. Solti took it in his recording (1981, Decca 289 460 311-2), making it the longest movement of the entire piece, for no good reason. It is clear that Welser-Möst has put some diligent thought and research into crafting this loving and lyrical performance, and it's simply one of the finest this work has ever had, offering much to treasure during a time of great world stress.
Ernst Křenek's Static and Ecstatic has nothing to do with Schubert, and wasn't programmed with it in concert. It was on the orchestra's program the previous week, and was a piece signaling an upcoming festival the orchestra had planned that would explore censored artists and works. Křenek had been blocked by the Nazis in 1930s Germany because of the jazzy elements of his opera Jonny Spielt Auf, though he later proved to be more of a serialist, which also would have gotten him banned. Static and Ecstatic was caught on the fly during the live concerts the weekend before the Schubert, though parts of it were presumably recorded either in rehearsal or patching sessions afterwards, because there are no intrusive audience noises to spoil the music, which ranges between contemplative and visceral.
The title comes from Křenek's method of composition of the ten short movements. Some are composed in a strictly serial manner (static), while others are written as free fantasies (ecstatic). The opening gives softly dissonant string chords punctuated by piano tone clusters, the second movement soon contrasting with surging billows of activity. The juxtapositions of stillness and frenetic activity continue, and it's not always quickly evident which parts are serial and which are freely atonal, for Křenek sometimes makes the serial parts ecstatic in mood and the freely written parts atmospherically static. It is interesting to hear this often-mysterious piece draw on the worlds of Schoenberg and Webern and subtly bring them into the social unrest of the early 1970s. Only the occasional touch of jazziness or harmonic richness evokes the time and place in which it was written (California, 1971-72), but it does so with flashes of grim humor. While never destined to be a classical Top Ten hit, the piece rewards repeat listening, and thus is valuable to have documented here.
Like the previous issue in this series, these recordings capture the intimate warmth and handsome clarity of Severance Hall ideally. The deluxe booklet contains a personal essay by Welser-Möst, an introduction by Cleveland Orchestra president and CEO André Gremillet, and detailed notes by Hugh Macdonald. The numerous illustrations include photos of the mostly empty hall during the recording of the Schubert, an image sure to haunt until this ensemble - one of the top advocates of the greatest creativity humankind has ever summoned - can once again play.
Mark Sebastian Jordan