From desolation to celestial vision with the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst

The Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst performing Olivier Mesiaen’s Christ, lumière du Paradis from Éclairs sur l’au-delà (1988-91) at the Severance Hall. © Roger Mastroianni

A year into the pandemic, one feels the weight of time upon everyday chores. While most concert halls remain closed, online performances have become essential means of coping over the long silence. For this week’s episode of In Focus, the Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst had assembled a deeply touching programme, reflecting the hopes and fears of our testing times.

Written in mere three days in July 1960, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 is one of the composer’s most profoundly personal statements. Although provoked by his visit to the bombed-out Dresden for a film project, Shostakovich’s quartet is essentially an autobiographical one. Yet the personal and the universal merge in its hall of mirrors, resulting in a bleak testimony of all the suffering brought forth by totalitarianism and war.

Cast in an arch of five interconnected short movements, the twenty minute quartet constitutes an intense instrumental drama, filled with quotations from several other scores by the composer, interwoven with Shostakovich’s signature DSCH-motive.

Following the quartet’s premiere, in consultation with the composer, conductor Rudolf Barshai adapted the score for string orchestra under the title of Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a. Even with extra sonic depth and width added, the music remains painfully intimate, a dead honest portrayal of the bleakest of mindsets.

Based on the DSCH motive, the largo outer movements wander off into sonic wasteland, extending both outside and within. No solace is found within either movement. Instead, in the fifth movement, the music fades into the same blackness from whence it first emerged in the opening.

Bookended by the two largos, three middle movements unravel, played attacca. The allegro molto second movement bursts into violent, machine-gun rhythms, beating its way headlong and finally bridging into the mock-waltz allegretto third movement, again based on the DSCH motive. In the largo fourth movement, stabbing chords and sustained lines alternate, paving the way for a quotation from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk(1933-34) on solo cello.

Performed with terrific intensity and focus by Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra strings, the Chamber Symphony is a gripping thing to listen. The string fabric is gorgeously dark-hued form beginning to end, with the textures ever laid out in admirable, chamber-like clarity.

Olivier Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’au-delà…(Illuminations from the Beyond…) (1988-91) is a massive affair. Scored for a very large orchestra and cast into no less than eleven movements, Éclairs is a compelling summa of the composer’s creative life and Catholic faith.

A seventy-minute contemplation on the apocalypse and afterlife, the eleven movements of Éclairs are each scored for a different combination of instruments, giving rise to a tremendous array of sonic colour, resulting from Messiaen’s incredibly varied orchestral textures.

To bring this week’s episode to its close, Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra had chosen to perform the luminous final movement from Éclairs. Titled Le Christ, lumière du Paradis (Christ, Light of Paradise), the eleventh movement takes its cue from the penultimate chapter of Revelation, depicting the Celestial City beyond the apocalypse.

The score of Le Christ calls forth the first violin section, six second violins, six violas and two celli, all subdivided into various divisi groups, as well as three triangles. Marked infiniment calme, et avec une intense expression, the ten minute movement is unveiled in absorbing timelessness. The glimmering aura of the ppp triangles is echoed throughout the movement, while the string fabric moves gradually from one chord to the next.

As the chordal cycle proceeds, scintillant harmonies emerge, clad in celestial raiments by the Cleveland Orchestra string players and the three percussionists, under Welser-Möst’s sensitive pacing. A performance of otherworldly beauty, the astounding sonorities of the orchestra give rise to a profoundly moving, cathartic experience.

Life-affirming, no less, the orchestra’s take on Le Christ, lumière du Paradis with Welser-Möst is to be counted among the most healing musical experiences during the past dark year. Gazing into a less troubled future, the performance is one to treasure.

The Cleveland Orchestra

Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Dmitri Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op. 110a (1960/1961) (after String Quartet No. 8) arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai

Olivier Messiaen: Le Christ, lumière du Paradis from Éclairs sur l’au-delà… (1988-91)

Recorded at the Severance Hall, Cleveland on 11-13 March 2021

First released on Adella Live on Thursday 25 March 2021

© Jari Kallio

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