Album review: Exultation and catharsis with the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst

Among all the great recordings out there, some of them also carry a very special meaning. The new SACD album by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Franz Welser-Möst definitely belongs to this category.

This album is made special not only by its innovative programming, in superlative performances, but also the circumstances surrounding the recording sessions at the Severance Hall back in March. 

There are two works recorded here, Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C major, D 944 (1825-26), also known as The Great, and Ernst Křenek’s Static and Ecstatic (1971-72), Op. 214. This playlist, featuring an astounding take on a staple of the repertory, followed by a luminous outing of a fairly unknown gem, written by two Austrians one hundred and fifty years apart, is simply brilliant. 

Yet, this pairing was not something that the orchestra and the conductor had planned to include on their follow-up release to the lavish three-disc set auguring their in-house record label. 

Recorded on 5-8 and 12-13 March, respectively, the works by Schubert and Křenek came to stand out as sounding documents from the two last programmes performed by the Cleveland Orchestra before the COVID-19 lockdown. The seven-month silence will finally come to its end this Thursday, with the first episode of the orchestra’s In Focus online concert series. 

Back in March, the Křenek piece was performed as a concert opener in a programme featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s symphony-cantata Logbesang (or Hymn of Praise), Op. 52 (1840) with full audience attendance, whereas the Schubert symphony got its two outings with small invited audiences before a complete halt of all concert activity. 

The original pairing for the Schubert symphony was Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40 (1924-25). The two composers had appeared side by side on several occasions at the Severance Hall, and the orchestra and Welser-Möst were to perform the symphony cycles in Vienna on their spring tour, also cancelled due the pandemic. 

So it was, that Křenek and Schubert were to meet only on the new disc, but without knowing the full story, well-documented in the extensive booklet essays by the orchestra’s President and CEO André Gremillet,Welser-Möst and Professor Emeritus Hugh MacDonald, one would assume that the two works would have appeared side by side in concerto too. 

Even though the two works have very little in common in terms of musical language, instrumentation or the overall musical architecture, they still go hand in hand miraculously well. 

Commissioned by Paul Sacher, Křenek’s twenty-minute score is cast in ten short movements, each without name or tempo indication. Scored for a chamber orchestra with extensive percussion section, Static and Ecstatic is clad in vivid array of colour. 

Křenek shared Igor Stravinsky’s love for the pointillist textures of Anton Webern, as is evident throughout Static and Ecstatic. Yet, like Stravinsky, Křenek developed a highly personal take on those textural devises, resulting in a fascinating realm of sound. 

Within the ten two-minute movements, the distinction between static and ecstatic is not always clear-cut. Sometimes they co-exist within a single movement, whilst on other occasions, consecutive movements are commentaries of one another. 

As a whole, Static and Ecstatic is an embodiment of music’s ability to move us, in diverse ways, from uplifting sonic bursts to calmly soothing textures. Wondrously performed by the members of the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst, the piece is an absolute gem. 

Chamber music to its core, Static and Ecstatic is an extraordinary vehicle to demonstrate the outstanding quality of music-making in Cleveland. The instrumental dialogue is ever sensitive and inspired, resulting in marvelous solo passages and gorgeous ensemble performance. 

Although each orchestral section is to be equally lauded here, I would still like to point out the extraordinary contribution from orchestral piano, played with conventional and extended techniques, and the ever-colourful percussion, with both pitched and unpitched instruments contributing to the dazzling sonic sphere of Static and Ecstatic.    

With Welser-Möst on the podium, Křenek’s score unravels in continuous manner, with seemingly disjointed sections fused into a logical whole. Beautifully recorded and engineered by TCO team, with an admirable combination of focused sound and spatial hue, Static and Ecstatic is a discovery. 

The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst onstage at Severance Hall.
© Roger Mastroianni

While the autograph score of Schubert’s Symphony in C major, held at the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, bears a 1828 dating, the work was most likely written in 1825-26. It has been assumed, that the score was Schubert’s response to Ludwig van Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony (1822-24), premiered at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna on / May 1824. 

Whilst Schubert’s symphony is purely instrumental one, its scale, however, is unprecedented in the composer’s output. Cast in four movements, and lasting over fifty minutes, the Symphony in C major looks forward to the extended symphonic schemes of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. In addition to the standard symphonic ensemble of its day, Schubert adds three trombones, thus extending the sonic palette. 

Although given, apparently, a rehearsal tryout, the symphony did not receive a public performance in Schubert’s lifetime. As is well known, it was Robert Schumann who discovered the score while visiting Ferdinand Schubert, the composer’s brother in Vienna. 

From that visit to Vienna on New Year’s Day 1839 stemmed not only the belated world premiere of the Symphony in C major, but also the key inspiration for Schumann’s first two symphonies, both written and premiered in 1841. 

Thus Schubert’s Symphony in C major was premiered by the Gewandhausorchester, with Mendelssohn conducting, on 21 March 1839, the birthday of both Johann Sebastian Bach and, less notably, this writer. Even after its first performance, many orchestras still refused to program the symphony, due to its heavy demands on the musicians, and, the audiences alike. 

Nowadays, the Symphony in C major is, of course, one of the bedrocks of the symphonic repertoire. Still, performing the score is far from routine. 

For a conductor, the symphony poses a formidable challenge of architecture and pacing, in order to convey the overall dramaturgy while maintaining its lyrical, song-like quality. For the string players, the score poses the challenge of stamina and articulation, while the wind and brass parts are filled with key solo passages, not forgetting the key contribution from the timpanist. 

The symphony opens with an extended seventy-seven-bar andante introduction, almost a self-contained movement in itself. An ethereal eight-bar horn passage summons the music into being, evoking responses from the strings and winds, gradually building up to the first tutti. 

The main body of the movement, allegro, ma non troppo is based on a sonata form, albeit a distinctly modified one. The music revolves back to its origins in the coda, with the main theme of the introduction reappearing to bring the movement to its close. 

Schubert’s second movement, andante con moto, is set in motion by a steady, and not that slow, string pulse. The thematic material is introduced by a haunting solo oboe, developed by the full wind section, with interjections from the brass. 

From its captivating opening, the movement builds up to a vast panorama, a symphonic tableau pre-echoing the slow movements of Bruckner.  

Balancing the bittersweet, autumnal second movement, a gorgeous scherzo ensues. The upbeat, open-air outer sections are contrasted in a rustic trio, resembling a village gathering. 

Schubert’s finale is probably the most staggering movement in the whole symphony. Opening with two fanfare-like calls for full orchestra, the music assumes an ambiguous, steadfast tone. This is not so much a heroic conclusion, but rather a splendid manifestation of musical defiance, gaining momentum on each iteration, before resolving into a final C major tutti burst of the closing page.

I cannot imagine a finer outing for this unique symphony than the one by the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst recorded here. Performed with gripping commitment and relentless energy, yet shunning all exaggeration and false pathos, the Symphony in C major is clad in wondrous instrumental detail and luminous orchestral colour. 

Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. © Roger Mastroianni

The translucent textures glimmer with astounding sonic beauty, rooted in the autumnal hue of Schubert’s score. Fabulously crafted by Welser-Möst, each movement bears impeccable sense of drama, as manifested by the ever well-proportioned sonic whole. 

Realized with superlative musicality by the Cleveland Orchestra, rooted in their astonishing sensitivity of expression, this rendition of the Symphony in C major yields to an absolutely unforgettable journey. Performed in the face of the unknown, on the final two days before lockdown, this recording is an apt summa of the collective experience shared throughout our interconnected worlds. 

The repeated listening sessions with this album over the past week or so have been events of exultation and catharsis, much needed under these times of uncertainty. As the concerts live at the Severance Hall now resumes with the In Focus streams, this album will stand as a milestone, reminding us of a critical moment in our lives, musical and otherwise.

The Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Franz Schubert: Symphony in C major (”The Great”), D 944 (1825-26)

Ernst Křenek: Static and Ecstatic (1971-72) – Ten movements for chamber orchestra

Recorded at the Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 5-8 March 2020 (Křenek) and 12-13 March 2020 (Schubert)

TCO0002 (2020), 1SACD 

© Jari Kallio 

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