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Atmospheres, Dramatic and Emotional

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/04/2009 -  & Feb. 6, 7, 2009
György Ligeti: Atmosphères
Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Songs
Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Opus 64

Measha Brueggergosman (Soprano)
The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor and Music Director)

Franz Welser-Möst (© Roger Mastroianni)

Many are the reasons why the “real America” Cleveland Orchestra gave a concert so satisfactory that it could put to shame some of its elite coastal cousins. One is their iconic conductor of many decades ago. George Szell reportedly could play every instrument in the orchestra with professional standards, using his knowledge to instil—or force—with pedantic accuracy the perfection we hear today. Then, their present conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, has stood steadfast against music critics and conservative “heartland” audiences to offer some very challenging programs, conducted with autocratic meticulousness.

Third was the program and soloist which they presented in the first of three different programs here. The first work was Atmosphėres, and that could have been the title for the entire evening. György Ligeti’s atmosphere of mathematical structures. Richard Strauss’s high Alpine atmosphere in his symphony. And most of all, thanks to last night’s soloist, a Wagnerian atmosphere of almost chilling tension.

Maybe it has something to do with the Canadian atmosphere, but Measha Brueggergosman is one of at least four Canadian singers who defy description. Maureen Forrester, who was perhaps the great Mahler singer of all time. Anna Russell, who turned a Wagnerian soprano voice into classic Wagnerian satire. Last week Canadian Barbara Hannigan performed miraculous vocal tricks with the music of Peter Eötovös. And last night we heard Measha Brueggergosman, who can be flamboyant, showy, but always an electric artist.

She appeared a bit taller than the stately Maestro Welser-Möst, in a long dress with foot-hiding train which caused many in the audience to almost avert their eyes from the radiance. A painter would describe it sunflower yellow. The reality was a dress color resembling the pure gold in a book of children’s fairy-tales.

When she started the Wagner Wesendonck Songs, one heard a soprano which initially sounded merely right. She perhaps reached for the high notes in “The Angel”, but the mawkish words were never overdone. After that, the expression, the phrasing and, above all, the color which she gave each and every word was mesmeric. As for the second song, “Be Still”, the first half was sung with the power for which she is so renowned. But the second half of the song she sings almost in a whisper—yet never an affected pianissimo, but one which expressed all that was needed.

For the other three songs, she and Maestro Welser-Möst were a unity and gave a unity to the song-cycle itself. The melodic lines were woven out, not simply played, the oboe and cello solos were one with Ms. Brueggergosman. The tension was neither frightening nor affected, but gave a life to the music which is all too rare, all too memorable. The silence after the finale “Dream” was long, for it was hard to break the spell.

The evening had begun with Ligeti’s landmark piece, Atmosphères, the composer’s study of quantum stasis. This was the stasis of billions of insects flying as one, or, even, the grains of sand in the jinni Arabian sand columns. In fact, it was pure audacity that the very first notes played by the Cleveland Orchestra were a 59-note tone cluster — over five-and-a-half octaves — played as softly as possible.But Mr. Welser-Möst is a master of this tension, and the entire ten-minute work was luminous.

For the last half, the Cleveland played Strauss’ ode to trekking, the Alpine Symphony. The opening of this is easily as good as the better-known Zarathustra or the closing of Heldenleben. It has some beautiful pictures of rain and storms and hunting horns coming from afar. But Alpine Symphony can also be bombastic, and Mr. Welser-Möst never quite fixed that.

Nonetheless, it was as majestic a performance as one could expect from this secondary tone-poem. After all, the Cleveland Orchestra has the tone, and the conductor has the sometimes austere poetry for any occasion.

Harry Rolnick



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