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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Concert Review: Countdown to Ecstasy

The Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst (on the podium) leads the Cleveland Orchestra.
A visit to New York by the Cleveland Orchestra is always anticipated. On Tuesday night, Franz Welser-Möst and the orchestra that he has directed for 11 years offered Carnegie Hall listeners a program designed to challenge and expand their musical horizons, combining Beethoven with works by Alexander Scriabin and a New York premiere by  contemprary composer Matthias Pintscher.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. This sunny work was unusually somber in the hands of Mr. Welser-Möst. The conductor took an expansive approach to the first movement in a seeming effort to elevate the piece to a new level of Beethovenian heroism. The effect was to make this bucolic, energetic music strangely somber in tone, an interpretation that was bold and individual, but strange to the ear.

The slow second movement was more elegaic, with a tense, springing rhythm in the low strings from which the main theme slowly unwound. The brass and wind playing here was very fine, underlining Beethoven's rhythmic message. Mr. Welser-Möst found the Dionysian spirit in the second half of the work, in the famous, Haydn-esque minuet and the Mozartean last movement.

Mr. Pintscher's work Chute d'Étoiles is not so much a concerto for two trumpets and large orchestra as an attempt to sonically render the massive sculptures of German artist Anslm Kiefer. Using heavy percussion, col legno strings and dissonant tutti chords, Mr. Pintscher creates giant blocks of sound, evoking the crushing weight and density of the lead used in Mr. Kiefer's art.

The twin solo trumpets, playing lines described as moving "in opposite directions" by Mr. Pintscher, provide the fire which melts the lead. Michael Sachs and Jack Sutte used flutter-tonguing, multiple mutes and breath techniques to create a stunning array of sounds in addition to the standard trumpet embouchre. The effect is one of terrifying force over four movements, with repetitions of the same rhythmic figure signifying the completion of another creative phase. Mr. Welser-Möst led the work with deadly accuracy, his baton sculpting the wide array of sounds into recognizable shape.

The second half of the program also featured Beethoven, albeit one of the composer's most challenging creations. The Grosse Fugue originated as the finale of the composer's BString Quartet (Op. 130)(Later, Beethoven composed a new, less ambitious finale, publishing the Fugue as a seperate work. Here, it was presented in an orchestral transcription created in the 1880s by the noted conductor Hans von Bülow.

From the first, incisive bite of sound from the Cleveland strings, it was clear that this was the approach to Beethoven that was needed (and somehow, missing) in the earlier performance of the Fourth. Mr. Welser-Möst and his string players reached through the dense fabric of counterpoint to touch the spirit of the divine beyond that resonates through Beethoven's last works, in a display of brilliant musicianship and fearless exploration of some of this composer's most dangerous terrain.

The concert ended with Scriabin's penultimate tone poem The Poem of Ecstasy. Depending upon one's opinion of Scriabin's output at the end of his life, the Poem marks the point where the composer a) flipped his wig or b) discovered a bold new tonal language that those who have followed were unwilling to explore. Either way it is a challenging 20 minute tone poem rich with orchestral tone color and full of pitfalls for the unwary conductor.

Mr. Welser-Möst led a performance that made good argument for Scriabin as a lost, forgotten genius. The key melodic themes in woodwind and brass were played with clarity and care, providing the listener with a road map into the twisted wilds of the later sections. Throughout, the massive, top-heavy orchestration was maintained with a careful, elegant balance. Even the addition of an organ in the work's final pages integrated smoothly into the architecture, a mighty closing swell of sound that articulated whatever theosophical point the composer was trying to make.

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