The Star-Struggled Beethoven on Opening Night of Carnegie Hall Season 2019-2020
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Otto Nicolai: Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor
Ludwig van Beethoven: Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G Major, op. 40 – Triple Concerto in C Major, op. 56
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier, op. 59: Concert Suite (arr. Robert Mandell)
Yefim Bronfman (Piano), Anne-Sophie Mutter (Violin), Lynn Harrell (Cello)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Music Director and Conductor)
A.-S. Mutter, Y. Bronfman, F. Welser-Möst, L. Harrell (© Chris Lee)
It has become a Carnegie Hall tradition to have a festive season opener with star-studded performers on stage and a program not too difficult for the patrons that, in large numbers, treat it only as a prelude to an even more festive banquet. Thus, the programs are performed without a break, save for some stage rearrangement, and offer easy-to-love works in often superb renditions. Such was the case of the Season Opening of the season 2019-2020, when we had on stage the illustrious Cleveland Orchestra with its music director Franz Welser-Möst and, among the soloists such celebrities as violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist Yefim Bronfman and cellist Lynn Harrell, assembled to perform the Beethoven Triple Concerto.
The program was, in one way or another, centered around Vienna, starting with an overture to an operetta by Otto Nicolai, then going slightly back to Beethoven’s time and finally proceeding to the Vienna of Richard Strauss with his most Viennese music, which has to be the opera Der Rosenkavalier, from which we heard a suite of orchestral fragments. If there is in this country a Viennese-sounding group, it is certainly the Cleveland Orchestra. From its inception the Cleveland Orchestra has had European born conductors, and the majority of them were raised in the Austro-Hungarian, Mittel-European traditions. Such was the case with George Szell, Christoph von Dohnányi and now Welser-Möst, but even the American born Lorin Maazel was brought upon the Viennese tradition, and at one time became even Artistic Director of the Vienna State Opera.
The Cleveland Orchestra was also always considered an ensemble with the tightness of a chamber music group: one that possessed unprecedented precision. Luckily, under most of the conductors who followed the great Szell, the Clevelanders never lost their silky sound that boasts elegance and power at the same time. It is easy to forget that some of the most charming, beautifully proportioned, well written and worthwhile music came from the world of operetta: too often we associate such gems as the overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor with “popular music”, whereas on the concert stage and played as magnificently as we heard at Carnegie it safely stands next to any “serious” overtures. It received a wonderfully delightful performance with some exquisite instrumental playing. It was probably a bow toward Ms. Mutter, arguably the biggest star of the evening, to invite her for a short solo piece in the form of Beethoven’s Romance in G Major, the first of two that the composer wrote for violin. It would probably make equal sense to let her play it after the Triple Concerto, but it would still position her “first, when they all should be equal”. As usual, Ms. Mutter displayed a warm, golden, rich sound – as hers is probably the most splendid tone among contemporary fiddlers – and a lot of rhythmic freedom as well as intonation vagaries. One wonders if the Romance’s solo opening in double-stops is a precursor to the analogous opening of the famous Kreutzer Sonata. Slight criticisms aside, I still favored her performance with the Clevelanders over the self-indulgent ones we heard with the NY Philharmonic during the reign of Maestro Kurt Masur.
Things improved in the Triple Concerto, where she was trying to be more disciplined and in line with our pianist Yefim Bronfman, who was both pliant but also able to harness a rhythmic backbone in line with the conductor. This concerto had always its opponents that claim it doesn’t belong in the upper shelf of Beethoven’s works, and its construction suffers. Yet, to this listener’s ears, it is a work full of lovely tunes and formally very much in the vein of such works as the Piano Concerto No. 4 or the Sonata “Waldstein”; neither of those works have well-developed middle movements, which serve merely as an intermezzo/lead-in to their respective Finales. There is, probably for practical reasons, no cadenza in the first movement and the only hint of such an overt-display of virtuosity appears in the last part of the finale, very similar to the concluding Presto in the “Waldstein” Sonata.
The most difficult part among the three solo instruments is that of the cello: it is often written in a high register (rumor has it that even such a great virtuoso as Yo-Yo Ma has to practice that part!), and here it seemed to be out of reach of our esteemed cellist Lynn Harrell, for whom rushing phrases or negotiating the right pitches was a challenge. His presence on stage was in a way symbolic, for he at one time was principal cellist of that orchestra before embarking on a solo and teaching career, and often partnered Anne-Sophie Mutter when she performed with her late husband Andre Previn. Here, the Triple Concerto didn’t much impress as a unified concept, usually heard when artists either know each other well or work on a piece for an extended period of time. Separately our players must have performed that work countless times and they have recorded it too, yet it still didn’t make their interpretation or phrasing sound integrated. Mr. Welser-Möst kept the orchestra in tight reins and it was an approach that favoring brisk tempi, very taut, determined, crisp and devoid of sentiment which was also to a certain degree seconded by the pianist. I recall several more convincing performances with lesser-known artists who tried to give some heart to this lovely and tuneful work.
The same problem, as far as the said unsentimental attitude is concerned, appeared in the concluding work of the program, the Der Rosenkavalier Concert Suite, this time in an arrangement by one Robert Mandell; it replaced for that evening a more popular and time-tested suite by Arthur Rodzinski, former chief conductor of the Cleveland Symphony (1933-1943).Whatever the arranger and the conductor have done, it did nothing to convince me that this version was even remotely superior to the other, better known one, and, at least based on my experience of that evening, or that our conductor has much feeling for Strauss and that he can be measured along the truly great interpreters of that wondrous opera. There was nothing to love about the suite itself, as it consisted of many chopped fragments that were not segued from one episode to the next.
Did the orchestra play it well? Sure they did and one could only imagine how wonderful they’d sound in Strauss’ music under a different maestro. Here, to my ears, everything sounded too brisk, rushed and insensitive, uninvolved and devoid of needed elegance. Rarely does a reviewer have a chance to go back home and rehear the performance just heard, but such was the case this time as the inaugural concert was recorded and broadcast on the WQXR radio station and will be available for several months on the Carnegie Hall website. My initial findings were confirmed by listening again to the recorded broadcast and, alas, upon the second hearing neither my love for Mr. Mandell nor for Mr. Welser-Möst interpretation increased. We had one encore; the Furioso-Polka Quasi Galopp by another famous Strauss, Johann Jr. and that allowed our concert to end in a lively and more charming fashion.