June 11, 2020
(+++) PURPOSEFUL HAGIOGRAPHY
The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century—including works by Beethoven, Varèse, Johannes Maria Staud, Richard Strauss, Bernd Richard Deutsch, and Prokofiev. Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst; Paul Jacobs, organ. Cleveland Orchestra. $60 (3 SACDs).
An exceptionally handsome presentation in which music, the supposed focus, often takes a back seat to design elements and self-praise, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century consists of a well-designed, photo-packed, 150-page book that sits in a cardboard tray and, when removed, reveals a neat little flap beneath which nestle three recordings of live performances from 2017 through 2019. The whole assemblage fits in an elegantly modern-looking slipcase designed to complement coffee tables and/or bookshelves rather than listeners’ music-storage spaces.
The point of the whole elaborate façade, and of the content within it, is to proclaim a new century for the orchestra (founded in 1918), announce the ensemble’s return to issuing recordings (on its own, all-new label), and lay to rest (for reasons that are not immediately apparent) the longstanding association between The Cleveland Orchestra and its longest-serving conductor, George Szell (1897-1970). Szell led the ensemble from 1946 until his death, turning a fair-to-middling regional American orchestra into a world-class ensemble so good that it brought enormous favorable attention to American classical music-making in general. The fine conductors primarily associated with the orchestra in the three decades after Szell’s death – Louis Lane, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi – largely preserved the Szell legacy but never really advanced it, and there was, if anything, some backsliding in the remarkable precision and commitment that Szell elicited from an ensemble that came to sound, under Szell, like a 100-member chamber group.
Franz Welser-Möst came to The Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, and his contract was recently extended to 2027 – which would make him, surely by design, a longer-serving maestro in Cleveland than Szell. The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century appears to exist largely to celebrate both the ensemble’s centenary and its emphatic move beyond the Szell era – a move that is made exceptionally clear through the choice of works included on the CDs within this release. It is also clear in the book, an element that is just as important here as the music: outside a discussion of the history of the acoustics of Severance Hall, the orchestra’s home, and some obviously necessary paragraphs within a mandatory (and 100% public-relations-focused) “Past, Present, and Future” section, Szell gets a couple of brief, suitably complimentary mentions, but only in passing – his era, after all, ended half a century ago. The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century is a tribute to the orchestra as it has been polished and positioned by Welser-Möst, who contributes a significant amount of the written material as well as the podium leadership.
This is a release clearly aimed at supporters and potential supporters, financial and otherwise, of The Cleveland Orchestra in its current incarnation. But for such an elegantly produced and packaged production, it has some strange omissions and outright errors. For example, the book’s narrative discusses the importance that Welser-Möst attaches to opera; and indeed, the inclusion of opera within the orchestra’s concert seasons is one distinctive element of the Welser-Möst era – actually a revival, of sorts, of an approach introduced by Artur Rodzinski in the 1930s. But nothing operatic appears on any of the three included CDs. Also, as usual in a document intended to praise rather than explore or analyze, the book allows statements to stand at face value when they are clearly questionable: Welser-Möst, whose commentary is for the most part both learned and genial, at one point describes the orchestra as a “supreme amalgamation of many parts working effortlessly as one,” a comment that is as much at odds with the enormously effortful requirements of rehearsals and in-performance perfection-seeking as it is possible to be. Elsewhere, he comments on ways in which Beethoven was “like so many composers lucky enough to reach the later stages of life” – but Beethoven died at age 56, living decades longer than Mozart (one example from his time) but not nearly as long as Haydn (another example).
These and other inelegances of expression contribute to a sense that the book appears to have been produced without input from any objective editor. Minor but irritating grammatical mistakes abound. For example: “The people of Cleveland recognized that having an orchestra of their own offered potential, both at home and on the road, for performing great music and by [sic] representing Cleveland throughout the world.” And: “The New York Times has declared Cleveland under Welser-Möst’s direction to be the [sic] ‘America’s most brilliant orchestra…’” Even the book’s table of contents contains embarrassing errors: there is a section correctly listed as starting on page 119, then one incorrectly listed as starting on page 135 (the correct page number is 133), and then one listed as starting on the same page 119 as the previous section (that one actually starts on page 135). So elaborate and costly a production deserved better.
So, for those not especially enamored of this particular orchestra for its own sake, and not necessarily inclined to become donors to it, does the music included here justify the purchase price and invite a potential new audience to The Cleveland Orchestra in the Welser-Möst era? The answer is: it depends. Once again, the intention to move determinedly past the Szell legacy is apparent in the choice of repertoire on display here: there is not one single piece from the more-traditional time periods championed by Szell, and indeed nothing at all in which a Welser-Möst reading could be compared with one by Szell by anybody so inclined. There are two works from the 19th century, two from the 20th, and two from the 21st, but there has apparently been a concerted effort to remain off the beaten path throughout, as if to proclaim in this way, as in others, the orchestra’s new direction.
From the standpoint of performance, though, considerations of the oddity of the repertoire are swept aside: Welser-Möst does an absolutely first-rate job with everything, and listeners looking for less-familiar pieces of all sorts will find a very great deal to enjoy and admire here.
Still, a raised eyebrow or two would be in order. There is a Beethoven work offered, but as part of the assiduous attempt to avoid any cross-comparisons, it is not a work for orchestra: it is his String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132, in a string-orchestra arrangement. This is the quartet in whose extended central movement Beethoven expresses his gratitude to God after recovering from an intestinal ailment. It is a very deeply felt work that uses the quartet form, and in particular the careful relationship among the four instruments, in some altogether new ways. Does it “work” when played by a larger string complement? Well, yes, in the sense that the added instruments broaden and deepen the sound of the music (inevitable when double basses are included); and in the further sense that The Cleveland Orchestra’s strings are one of the orchestra’s most-impressive-sounding sections, along with the ensemble’s woodwinds. But does the arrangement serve any particular communicative or emotive purpose? Well, no: if anything, it distracts from the intimacy of what Beethoven communicates here. The result is an interesting experiment that ultimately says more about Welser-Möst and his thinking than it does about Beethoven.
The other 19th-century work here is by Richard Strauss, whose opulence and grandeur would seem ideal for putting a high-quality orchestra through its paces. But Welser-Möst here chooses to present none of the better-known tone poems: he opts for Aus Italien, which is Strauss’ Op.16 and was written when the composer was 22. This four-section work is uneven, does not yet display many of the characteristics of Strauss’ more-mature (and better-organized) tone poems, and – except for some lovely horn material in the first movement – does not come through with nearly as much individuality as do the composer’s later endeavors. Is it worth hearing from time to time? Absolutely. Will listeners who know Strauss enjoy a well-played version of this early piece? Again, absolutely. But using this as the work with which to help showcase the “new century” of The Cleveland Orchestra is another rather odd decision.
When it comes to the 20th-century pieces here, the choices – both from the 1920s – are again a bit strange. Edgard Varèse’s Amériques (1921) seems nowhere near as explosive today as it used to – although it is still one heck of a showcase for percussion, which turns out to be another outstanding section of The Cleveland Orchestra. Amériques seems mostly a work of its time, of an age of industrialization and immigration and crowding and endless mechanical susurrations. Welser-Möst leads the piece with enthusiasm, emphasizing its many contrasts and certainly not holding back when it comes to the notorious use of a siren; it is a fine performance. And Welser-Möst is equally enthusiastic in presenting the other 20th-century offering, a Prokofiev symphony. But this is another very odd choice: it is not the well-known “Classical,” or either of the great symphonies (Nos. 5 and 6), or even the restrained and melancholic No. 7; nor is it the peculiar and oddly compelling No. 2, which dates to 1925 and shares many sensibilities with Amériques. No, Welser-Möst selects Symphony No. 3, which dates to 1928-29 and consists of material from the unsuccessful opera The Fiery Angel, whose first full performance occurred only in 1954, the year after the composer’s death. This is the closest thing listeners get in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century to something operatic, but there is actually little that is in any way opera-like in the symphony – themes from the stage are used very differently for the symphonic work. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 is rarely heard in concert; listeners are most likely to own it as part of a complete cycle of the composer’s eight symphonic works (including the two very different versions of Symphony No. 4). It is, in fact, an underrated work that, when well-performed, has considerable power. And it is certainly well-performed here: Welser-Möst handles the complex and frequently rather noisy score sure-handedly and effectively. The Cleveland Orchestra’s excellent woodwinds, in particular, are standouts, and the strings are excellent in the pervasive eerie passages of the third movement. Yet as a whole, although this is a reading that is interesting and convincing, it is not one that is likely to leave anyone thinking that this work, despite its intriguing elements, is on the same level as the best of Prokofiev’s later, more-cohesive symphonies. It shows a different side of Prokofiev from those more typically heard, which may well have been Welser-Möst’s reason for programming it; but whether that is a sufficient rationale for including it in this particular package is at best arguable.
And that brings us to the two 21st-century pieces included in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, both of them world première recordings – and both of them offering good reasons for listeners to consider acquiring this release, despite its peculiarities and imperfections. Dating to 2016, Stromab (Downstream) by Johannes Maria Staud (born 1974) is not-quite-program music inspired by a specific program. Staud wrote it in response to Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 novella, The Willows, a tale that horror master H.P. Lovecraft placed at the top of both the lists he made of his favorite weird tales. Like many contemporary works for orchestra, Stromab calls for a very large orchestra and an enormous percussion section (needing four percussionists, which seems a lot except when compared with the number needed for Amériques: nine!) that includes cowbells and sleigh bells and tubular bells, nine gongs, four bongos, two conga drums, and much more. Staud uses the orchestra skillfully, creating a work whose meaning seems always just out of sight (thus reflecting the experiences of the characters in The Willows). The piece is unsettling rather than overtly frightening (again reflecting its source material) and is always anticipatory – from an opening that sounds a bit like that of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, through sections in which the orchestra emulates mystifying and possibly malevolent sounds, into segments that partake of minimalism but also feature sudden sonic eruptions. The work is largely and rather surprisingly tonal, certainly featuring plenty of dissonance but always bringing listeners to a grounding in consonance – it is no stretch to hear this as a contrast between the mundane world and something stranger, more evanescent and ultimately inexplicable, a stance that fits Blackwood’s ethos perfectly. Stromab is essentially a one-movement, 20-minute concerto for orchestra, and that is how Welser-Möst handles it: as a display piece, yes, and a showcase for the strength of the orchestra’s sections and the individual performers within them, but also as an opportunity to show the subtlety with which today’s Cleveland Orchestra can play a work of considerable rhythmic, harmonic and communicative complexity.
And then there is a piece that shows an entirely different side of The Cleveland Orchestra and, in the process, highlights an otherwise little-known element of its history through the performance of an outstanding soloist. The work, which dates to 2014-15, is Okeanos: Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, by Bernd Richard Deutsch (born 1977). And here Welser-Möst gets to show his approach to an element of conducting that many orchestra directors dislike or at best tolerate: accompanying a soloist and often playing second fiddle (sometimes literally) to the featured virtuoso. Much of the discussion of Okeanos in the book around which The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century is built centers on the Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows program – Deutsch is currently serving in it, and Staud was in the program from 2007-2009 – and on the 1930-31 organ built for Severance Hall by Ernest M. Skinner, a famed Boston organ builder of the early 20th century. Remarkably – in light of the quality of the organ – the instrument essentially disappeared from Cleveland Orchestra use for 40 years, because of modifications to Severance Hall that significantly enhanced orchestral acoustics while seriously compromising those of the organ. This little-known story, told in the book (unsurprisingly) in a way that downplays the detrimental effects of the long neglect and builds to the reintroduction of the organ in 2001, after its restoration, becomes part and parcel of the story of Okeanos.
But it is Paul Jacobs who really tells that story – indeed, the story both of the work and of the organ on which he plays it. Jacobs is a remarkable organist, whose technical skill is wedded to profound musical understanding, whose comprehension of Bach is as impressive as his commitment to and elucidation of the works of contemporary composers. Okeanos gives him – and the orchestra – a real workout, and for that matter is also something of a workout, a bracing and pleasant one, for the audience. Like Staud, Deutsch calls for a large orchestra with plenty of percussion; also like Staud, Deutsch offers a work that is almost programmatic but never entirely illustrative. The concerto is named for the ancient Greek personification of the world’s oceans, but it is not simply about water: it deals with the old notion of “four elements,” the first being water, the second air, the third earth and the fourth fire. This is an excellent organizational structure – one thinks of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” which has an analogous crafting – and Deutsch uses it quite well. His writing for organ is very sensitive, and Jacobs knows exactly how to make it as effective as possible – for instance, when the high-pitched stops are played against piccolos and high percussion, and when soft string stops are heard against orchestral trumpets and trombones. Jacobs has plenty of chances to display his considerable virtuosity – parts of Okeanos sound like toccatas with all the stops pulled out, in some cases pretty much literally. But this is far from a straightforward display piece: Jacobs is also required in many places to perform in balance with, rather than aurally in front of, the orchestra, and here too his first-rate musicality and sense of style come to the fore. Interestingly, Welser-Möst also shows himself willing to subsume his strong musical personality into the requirements of Deutsch’s work: the orchestra is certainly loud enough when called for, but there is no sense of competition between soloist ad ensemble here – rather, Jacobs cooperates with Welser-Möst to produce a whole greater than its constituent parts. That is an ideal approach to this (and many other) concertos.
As for the music of Okeanos, it has derivative elements, but from a wide range of sources: it sounds here like film music, there like post-Schoenberg atonality, elsewhere like outright spookiness of the sort for which organs are sometimes (indeed, all too often) employed. What is interesting is the way Deutsch plays with and plays around with these elements, using them – and encouraging Jacobs to use them – in ways that make Okeanos sound genuinely new despite its inclusion of material familiar from elsewhere. For example, there are several occasions on which something portentous seems to be going on – until Deutsch suddenly changes the sound, and Jacobs takes listeners in an unexpected direction. Sometimes that direction is an amusing one, as in the first movement, when everything builds and builds and gets more and more dramatic, only to come to a sudden and unexpected full stop that leaves just the sound of chimes and bells behind. The speed of the second movement contrasts well with the slow meandering of the third, while the finale, if not exactly fiery, is witty and speedy and – in Jacobs’ hands – thoroughly engaging and involving.
It is for the world première recordings of Stromab and Okeanos, for the exceptional performance of Paul Jacobs as much as for the consistently high-quality leadership of Franz Welser-Möst, that listeners should seriously consider owning The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century. The whole thing is overdone, self-important, self-referential, and somewhat too determined to bypass the legacy of the great conductor who brought the orchestra to a quality on which Welser-Möst has been able to build. And really, given the odd repertoire selection, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century smacks of being a moneymaking project as much as a musical one. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with that: nothing here would be possible without sufficient generosity, and if this attractive-looking package is a bit over-the-top where packaging is concerned, and a bit underwhelming when it comes to repertoire, so be it. The Staud and Deutsch works are genuine finds, whatever the motivation for their inclusion here; Jacobs’ performance of the Deutsch is top-notch by any standards, and completely convincing; and even if self-aggrandizement has a somewhat too-heavy presence in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, it is difficult, after reading so much and hearing so much, to do anything less than wish the orchestra well with its music-making, marketing and, yes, fundraising.