An Illusion of Effortlessness for Musical Time Travelers

02.07.05
Cleveland Orchestra
The New York Times

 

Like good instrumentalists, good conductors can often convey the impression of effortlessness, and watching Franz Welser-Möst lead the Cleveland Orchestra is a perfect case in point. Mr. Welser-Möst, an Austrian, has a graceful way of allowing the music to emerge unharassed from this wonderful ensemble.

A simple inviting gesture toward the violins, for example, can produce the loveliest phrase of Schubert, pouring into the hall as if the music had been just waiting there at the threshold of the silence, biding its time patiently behind all those black dots on the page.

The ease and naturalness were striking features of the two concerts Mr. Welser-Möst led this weekend, the conclusion of a four-concert series at Carnegie Hall. As an elegant way of threading the programs together, Mr. Welser-Möst recruited Radu Lupu to survey all five of the Beethoven piano concertos, with the Fifth coming on Friday and the Fourth on Saturday.

Mr. Lupu's masterly readings linked eloquent understatement with spontaneity and an intuitive sense of form and structure. Arresting passages seemed to lurk behind every corner, as with the soloist's rippling pianissimo triplets over pizzicato strings in the first movement of the Fifth, or in the very opening of the Fourth, which Mr. Lupu played with a tender, lost-in-thought quality. When the orchestra answered, it was not to interrupt the reverie but to join it.

On Friday, Beethoven was contrasted with two vivid works by living composers that showcased the orchestra's versatility: Harrison Birtwistle's "Night's Black Bird," in its New York premiere, and Henri Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2, "Le Double."

Sir Harrison's work is an absorbing modernist nightscape, with a series of birdsongs emerging from the gallery of woodwinds planted deep in the orchestral forest, enshrouded and later driven by hazy chords in the strings. Mr. Dutilleux's colorful score creates two ensembles out of one, and then has them imitate each other, converse and argue back and forth, while recurring figures knit the music together and bring a curious sense of sonic déjà vu.

On Saturday, Beethoven was greeted with postcards from Vienna, beginning with Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, delivered with the aforementioned ease and crystalline clarity. It was a particular pleasure to hear Cleveland's superb string section, which plays with a velvety smoothness, pristine intonation and a dynamic range so finely gradated that it never produced the same piano twice.

But the evening's most surprising effect came not from what was played but from what was omitted: applause. Mr. Welser-Möst did not pause after the Schubert, plunging directly from the andante's tender close into the agitated opening of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra.

It was a dizzying time warp of nearly a century, as the gemütlich Vienna of the 1820's gave way to a febrile capital on the eve of World War I. Berg's music was the perfect point of arrival. It courses with a disintegrated Romanticism: passionate gestures from the Old World delivered in the astringent language of the New. The third piece in the set ends with a giant Expressionist thwack that seems in resolute defiance of Schubert's Vienna.

But while history grinds inexorably forward, a concert can saunter lightly back. As an encore, Mr. Welser-Möst tapped the clocks yet again with his magic baton, and we were instantly back in the courtly and decorous Vienna that the writer Stefan Zweig immortally called "the world of yesterday." The music was Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Emperor Waltz"; the playing as effortless as ever.