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Varieties of Symphonic Experiences

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/21/2024 -  & January 17, 18, 2024
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphonies No. 2, Opus 40, & No.  5, Opus 100
Anton Webern: Symphony, Opus 21

Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor, Music Director)

S. Prokofiev/A. Webern

Webern shook the foundation of sound as discourse in favor of sound as sound.
John Cage

Prokofiev’s ‘Fifth Symphony’ is obviously a work of major importance. But I was alarmed to find how easy and agreeable it seemed to me at first hearing.
Sir Adrian Boult

Will the real Sergei Prokofiev please stand up? Is he the Prokofiev of Scythian Suite? ”War” Sonatas? Second Symphony (which we heard this afternoon?) Or the Prokofiev of the “Classical” Symphony? Romeo and Juliet? The Fifth Symphony? (also heard at this concert)

Franz Welser-Möst gave us all the anarchic mad disordered music of the Second, and the near‑gentle lyricism of the Fifth, and in both, the Cleveland Orchestra allowed us to hear new voices, new colors, new dreams (both nightmare and euphoric).

The more one hears Maestro Welser‑Möst, the more one is going to miss him when he leaves the Cleveland Orchastra at the end of this terms.

Like the opening of last night’s Miraculous Mandarin suite, he started the Second with dizzying dissonant ersatz chaos–what the composer called “iron and steel”–and never let go for the whole movement. Where the Cleveland Orchestra’s burnished strings too priority last night, the Second brought forth all the brass (Oh, those tuba solos!) and percussion (bass drum whoppers). Mr. Welser‑Möst allowed the whole orchestra to a variegated color scheme through all the noise.

Until the multi-layered theme-and-variations final movement. The oboe theme here is lovely, but it hides a whole panoply of moods, from languid to blazoning forte fortissimo. And Mr. Welser‑Möst knew how to extract each moment.

By the way, this movement was–supposedly–inspired by one or two movements from Beethoven sonatas. So one must ask how old Ludwig would react. I think he would say the following:

“That music is even more lunatic than my Great Fugue. It would have made me deaf if I wasn’t deaf already. How was he able to put musical notes to nightmares??

“On the other hand, I would trade in all my symphonies, sonatas and string quartets to have an orchestra like the Cleveland Orchestra!”

The Fifth Symphony is more popular for good reason. As Sir Adrian Boult said at the top of this story, it is easy, agreeable, lyrical. The difference is the difference between Dalí and Monet. Take your choice.

One section, as directed by Mr. Welser‑Möst was the ultimate illumination of the composer. The trio of the second movement is a rather pedestrian theme. Yet each repetition, each measure is orchestrated differently, the orchestral colors changing gradually, the feelings passing by dreamlike with combinations exactly right.

The afternoon’s third symphony was the ten‑minute Anton Webern Symphony, a work which might have stunned first‑time listeners. Nor did the composer actually understand its difficulties. Webern might have been a genius, but he was more than a little deficient in predicting the future.

In fifty years,” he said, “my music will be obvious. Children will understand it and sing it.

Actually, this music is as much part of the Welser‑Möst corpus as Mahler. Where most conductors of the Boulez variety will punctuate Each. And. Every. Different Note, Mr. Welser‑Möst let the Symphony flow. Those who never read the score or who never heard it before might have been astonished at its limpid Schubert-like melodies. Its hints of repetition, even when the repeats are upside-down or backward or played by a variety of instruments.

Quite a revelation. And the joy which one feels to know that Franz Welser‑Möst will be returning to Carnegie Hall the first week of March. This time with his beloved Vienna Phil. Mahler preaches salvation, Welser‑Möst predicts–from this listener–divine salivation.

Harry Rolnick



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