Franz Welser-Most Swings for the Fence
by Mark Satola
The gargantuan and the intimate crossed paths Thursday night in Severance Hall when music director Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concerts of 2009.
Shostakovich’s supersized Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” nearly bulldozed the delicate "Wesendonck Songs" by Richard Wagner into oblivion. But for an outstanding performance by soprano Measha Brueggergosman, they might have been forgotten in the onslaught of Shostakovich’s wartime juggernaut.
The Canadian soprano has been a regular with the Cleveland Orchestra since 2006, and her performance of Wagner’s songs underscored why. Her voice is light and clear, without the heft one usually associates with Wagnerian sopranos, yet it has a steely fibre that allows her to ride the tide of Wagner’s music without being submerged in it.
Brueggergosman’s artistry and dramatic understanding gave Mathilde Wesendonck’s overwrought poems a credibility they might not have in lesser hands. Welser-Möst chose to lead the Felix Mottl orchestrations, which are sensitive and unobtrusive. On Thursday night, there was a slight roughness to the orchestral sound; hopefully it will be smoothed over in subsequent performances in Severance Hall and in Miami.
It would be difficult not to knock it out of the ballpark with Dmitri Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, the “Leningrad.” Once ubiquitous in concert halls — in 1943, it received 62 performances in the United States alone — it’s now heard rarely enough to constitute an event when it’s played.
The scoring is for a massive orchestra, and the story behind the symphony is a corker: the physically slight but brave composer refusing to be evacuated from Nazi-besieged Leningrad, composing a huge symphony that described the German onslaught and commemorated the suffering and heroism of the Soviet people. Microfilms of the score were smuggled to the west via Tehran, Egypt, London and New York.
But with Shostakovich, things are never what they seem. Latter-day history suggests the composer had other things in mind when he wrote the “Leningrad.” The controversial Solomon Volkov is not alone in suggesting that the Seventh Symphony is a coded message of defiance against the Stalin regime. It’s a matter that most likely cannot be settled.
Perhaps the best way to approach it is as pure music, a universal drama of oppression and endurance. Welser-Möst brought out the visceral impact of the score to such an extent that it was hardly necessary to hear it as program music.
Welser-Möst seems most at home when conducting works of great architectural scope, and the Shostakovich symphony allowed him to shape and balance the music with an operatic sense of drama. The famous Lehar crescendo in the first movement was allowed to proceed with a fine rhythmic swing — it can easily be driven far too hard — but intimate moments were not neglected, and Welser-Möst brought a Mahlerian delicacy to the many uneasy idylls that punctuate the symphony.
Any ragged playing from the orchestra — and there was more than a little — can be chalked up to forgivable enthusiasm. By the time the final volleys of brass were unleashed, it was clear that Welser-Möst and his musicians had indeed hit a shattering home run.
Originally written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.