The weather inside is just fine for Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Most

01.16.09
Radu Lupu
Cleveland Plain-Dealer

How fitting that Mother Nature chose to sock Northeast Ohio with a subzero punch at this particular moment. For this weekend, it just so happens that the Cleveland Orchestra is already preoccupied with matters meteorological. Three of the four works on the program, in fact, are concerned with weather.

But the correlation ends there. Unlike the temperatures outside, the performances under Franz Welser-Most at Severance Hall are actually inviting.

Richard Strauss' climatic interests are clear in "Alpine Symphony," an eventful musical journey up and down a mountain, punctuated by a raging storm.

But the tempest, furious though it is with percussion simulations of thunder and wind, is not the highlight. In Welser-Most's reading, that honor goes to "Journey's End," whose calm, resonant glow emanates from attentive collaboration between organist Joela Jones, horn player Richard King and trumpeter Michael Sachs.

"Summit," too, comes out on top, living up to its title as the conductor at last takes a breather and gives the strings time to savor the glorious musical view.

Ironically, the down side here is the ascent. Evocative details aplenty fall by the wayside as Welser-Most bustles through meadows, waterfalls and icy paths on a single-minded charge. The descent of a mountain is always the more perilous leg. But in this score, it's also the more contemplative, and that's a mood Welser-Most apparently prefers.

Ligeti wasn't necessarily thinking about weather when he wrote "Atmospheres." But shifting heavenly vapors is certainly an apt metaphor for this dense, slow-moving work.

Conducting the piece, Welser-Most quickly establishes a rich but fragile stasis, holding the massive orchestra to the softest possible volumes. At the end, he allows the final notes to decompose long enough for even the memory of sound to fade.

In Debussy's "Nuages" ("Clouds"), the extra-musical imagery is obvious. Likewise, there's no mistaking the subject in the orchestra's nimble, weightless performance.

The exception to the weather-related rule this weekend is Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3. Mitsuko Uchida performed the work here just last May, but the soloist now is Radu Lupu.

To compare the two performances would be pointless. Suffice it to say that while Lupu specializes in Germanic repertoire, he's also fluent in musical Hungarian.

Adapting readily to the idiom, Lupu strikes the ideal balance between rhythmic rigor and sensual pliancy. Humor even comes into play as he relishes the music's unpredictability.

Through it all, Welser-Most and the orchestra are dashing partners, surrounding their guest in vibrant colors without washing out any of his. On Thursday, they also helped steady him during the Adagio, when a ringing cell phone twice poked holes in the silken musical fabric he was weaving.

To listeners, the noise was simply rude. But to Lupu, it must have been painful, like lightning striking.