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Monday, January 18, 2016

Concert Review: Sad Tales, Best for Winter

The Cleveland Orchestra returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra on Sunday night at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Steve J. Sherman © 2015 Carnegie Hall.
The arrival of the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Sunday coincided with the first brittle snow to land on New York this winter, a glittering and skittering fall that made the air sharp and cold and footing treacherous on the sidewalks. That made getting to the Hall that Music Built for Sunday evening's concert an effort. Those who made the trek were well rewarded by one of the most ambitious concert programs of this new year: a new work paired with Shostakovich's under-performed Symphony No. 4 in C minor.

Music director Franz Welser-Möst opened the performance with the New York premiere let me tell you by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, This work features writer Paul Griffiths recutting all of Ophelia's lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet into seven mysterious songs, some soft and subtle, others keening and overwrought. Soprano Barbara Hannigan wailed and wept over shimmering, divided string lines and a wisp of woodwinds. The first two songs were  gentle and restrained under Mr. Welser-Möst's hand. Only in the two central songs did the players go above forte, as they dealt with the tragic heroine at her most fraught. Curiously, the last song had Ophelia not fall into a lake from a willow-bough but wander out to freeze in a swirl of snow.

With his No. 1 being a student work and 2 and 3 shameless pieces of pro-Soviet propaganda, it could be argued that the Symphony No. 4 is the first mature symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. He embarked on the work emboldened by the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The symphony was completed in 1936 and in rehearsals, but it was withdrawn before it could be premiered. Shostakovich, suffering backlash from Stalin's attacks on work and aware of his precarious standing with the dictator, quickly wrote the four-movement Symphony No. 5 as a state-pleasing stopgap. It premiered in 1937 to huge acclaim. The Fourth was forgotten, and thought lost until orchestral parts were discovered in the 1950s. The work was finally performed in 1961, eight years after Stalin's death.

This is an unconventional symphony in the Mahlerian mode, with the composer writing for unusual combinations of instruments (bassoons and piccolo, xylophone and glockenspiel) and exploring new symphonic shapes in its three-movement structure. It's sort of like a giant airplane, with two enormous outer movements forming the "wings" around a short little "scherzo" that serves as a fuselage. This architecture, and the composer's choice to engage in obsessive repetition of its thematic material can prove frustrating for listeners, who prefer the same musical ideas in the friendlier construct of the Fifth.

Following the opening for woodwinds and xylophone that sounded like a balky alarm clock, the orchestra launched itself into a rapid, breathless march.  Mr. Welser-Möst taking advantage of the taut synchronicity of his players to deliver a performance of brute force, precisely applied. This same movement later yielded to soft passages for harp and bass clarinet, although the rhythmic pulse still drove the orchestra forward. Its last bars, with the march ending with a jaunty little bassoon solo, an audacious and expressive choice.

The central scherzo offers little respite from the funereal atmosphere. The off-kilter dance movement recalls the horror-music of the late Mahler symphonies with outpourings for horn, flute and piccolo over this cemetery dance. The strings make an attempt at lyricism in a fugal passage and central trio, but the atmosphere of impending death suffocates any such effort in the recapitulation of the first theme.

Squaring his shoulders, Mr. Welser-Möst launched the long last movement with a slow funereal tread again dominated by cellos and wailing clarinet. This sets up the chain of miniature movements that follows, almost another symphony within the larger structure of the fourth. The march gave way to a hard-headed allegro, a waltz, another scherzo dance and finally the great, thundering finale with its heavy  blasts of timpani and writing for two contrabass tubas. And yet, once the battlefield cleared, the movement came to its close with a soft, mysterious coda. It may have been muted, but it was still the voice of unrest.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.