Saturday, 5 November 2011

Franz Welser-Möst und seine Clevelander

Musikverein, 04/11/2011

Weber: Overture to Euryanthe, op. 81
John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony
Chaikovsky: Symphony no. 4 in F minor, op. 36

What with the Thielemann Ring and Wien Modern, I only made it to one of the four Cleveland concerts on at the Musikverein this week. It was a good one, but despite a promising start I soon recognised what critic Don Rosenberg got ousted from his beat for saying – outstanding playing, directionless conducting.

Directionless because of Franz Welser-Möst’s neurotic attention to detail. In the Weber it was all about articulation, with a dizzying number of gestures to ‘assist’ the delivery of phrases – by which I mean routine stuff that conductors usually see to in rehearsal but just let happen in performance. To what extent Welser-Möst shaped anything larger is debatable. Fortunately the vibrancy of the playing saved this from sounding micro-managed: the strings opened strongly with one of those sparks you’re lucky to get a handful of in a season, and the charged playing spread with across the orchestra with an easy, natural momentum. None of it was fierce or heavy and even the basses sounded lyrical.

The Doctor Atomic Symphony failed to ignite in the same way. John Adams has tightened up this orchestral arrangement of music from his 2005 opera, cutting the length by half. But it didn’t hang together so convincingly under Welser-Möst’s direction. The first fifteen minutes made Adams sound like the bastard child of Copland and Stravinsky – quite different to David Robertson’s more distinctive reading with the Saint Louis Symphony. The trumpet solo with intermittent minimalist ostinato was a curious affair: channelling Louis Armstrong was mildly amusing the first time and corny by the third, and the string flare-ups seemed oddly contrived. The only thing I took away from this was that Welser-Möst has possibly experienced a New Orleans jazz funeral.

The Chaikovsky got off to a shaky start, with a few fluffs in the brass. Playing was more solid after that, with smooth entries and some notable contributions in the middle movements: oboe, celli, and pleasantly warbly bassoon. I should also mention the Cleveland’s timpanist – after much rough-edged rolling from the Symphoniker recently, it was good to hear an instrument with depth, roundness and, yes, pitch to the sound. Third movement pizzicato was well-balanced, expressive, and warm.

But again the conducting didn’t do anything to lift this above an uninspiring effort: Welser-Möst doesn’t do discursive, the first movement felt shapeless, and Fate made an incongruous return at the end. Tempi were fine on the whole and playing, once it settled down, reached a certain quality, but for not even an unsatisfactory sum to be fashioned from these very good parts led to what can only be described as a rather stupefying performance.

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