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Cleveland’s Voluptuous ‘Lulu,’ Surrounded by Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

In assessing an orchestra, classical music insiders and audiences can get too caught up with the issue of sound. Yes, to be enveloped in the sheer sonic splendor of a great orchestra is a wonderful thing. But I am willing to trade a little aural roughness for bracing performances when a conductor and players challenge themselves in the best sense and bring striking insights to standard repertory or champion living composers. There is more at stake for the American orchestra than the pursuit of glorious sound.

As a rebuttal to this point of view, however, there was the Cleveland Orchestra’s concert on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. The opening work was Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, and from the first moments — three vigorous statements of a stern, sustained C in the strings, each one bursting into a slashing chord — the sheer sound of the orchestra was mesmerizing. Throughout the program, which included a sensual account of Berg’s “Lulu” Suite and a fleet, involving performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, the overall sound was so rich, deep and focused, it was almost tactile.

This should have been no surprise. The Cleveland Orchestra has been renowned for its sound since the glory days of George Szell a half-century ago. But for the first few seasons after Mr. Welser-Möst became music director in 2002, a surprise choice to succeed the towering Christoph von Dohnanyi, he seemed not up to the job and struggled to get his footing. At the time he struck me as a solid and earnest but not especially compelling musician. Even the sound of the orchestra lost luster and focus during those first shaky seasons, although I heard the Clevelanders only during their regular visits to New York.

In recent years the bond between this committed Austrian conductor, who turns 50 in August, and the Cleveland players has grown steadily, it would appear. On Friday the orchestra sounded phenomenal, and finally Mr. Welser-Möst impressed me as a major musician.

Despite my reservations about cultivating orchestral sound as an end in itself, this inspiring concert was a reminder that everything in music is, of course, expressed through sound. In the main theme of the “Coriolan” Overture, which begins with a stream of restless notes in C minor, the sound of the subdued strings still had body, russet coloring and character. As the piece unfolded, crescendos swelled effortlessly, with not a trace of exaggeration. Mr. Welser-Möst led a sober, classically proportioned performance. Still, the playing was so transparent, textured and articulate that every moment was exciting.

In Berg’s “Lulu” Suite Mr. Welser-Möst seemed bent on persuading listeners, especially Berg skeptics, to put out of their minds any notions about intimidating 12-tone compositional procedures and just listen to the voluptuous, intensely expressive music. The orchestra sensitively cushioned the astringent harmonies and incisively dispatched the jagged rhythms and bursts of wrenching atonality. The bright-voiced soprano Erin Morley was a bewitching soloist in “Lulu’s Song,” an excerpt from Act II of the opera in which the manipulative Lulu tells her ineffectual husband that she has never tried to appear to be “anything other than what I am taken for.”

In Beethoven’s “Eroica” Mr. Welser-Möst’s tempos were as brisk as any you will hear from period-instrument orchestras. Yet the playing, though lithe and buoyant, always had resonance and warmth. There was vigor and élan in the first movement but also shape and grandeur. As the hushed opening of the Scherzo raced by, the sound of the strings was almost a murmur filtering through the hall. Yet if you listened closer, you could hear every note cleanly played. The final ovation was tremendous.

Some performances of the “Eroica” are driven by a top-down maestro. It takes nothing away from Mr. Welser-Möst to say that in this “Eroica” he came across as an empowering musician among trusting colleagues. And the sound? Wow.