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Cries and Whispers Across the Centuries

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/18/2023 -  & January 13, 14, 15, 2023 (Cleveland)
Alban Berg: Lyric Suite: Second, third and fourth movements
Franz Schubert “Unfinished” Symphony No.8 in B Minor, D. 759 – Mass No.6 in E‑Flat Major, D. 950

Joélle Harvey (Soprano), Daryl Freedman (Mezzo‑Soprano), Julian Prégardien, Martin Mitterrutzner (Tenors), Dashon Burton (Bass-Baritone)
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Lisa Wong (Chorus Director), The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)

F. Welser‑Möst (© Cleveland Orchestra)

When I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow. And when I wished to sing of sorrow, it was transformed for me into love.
Franz Schubert

I declare firmly and decisively the great importance which sensuality has for everything. Only through an understanding of sensuality does one arrive at the true idea of the human psyche.
Alban Berg

Franz Welser‑Möst hasn’t performed miracles with the Cleveland Orchestra. The gorgeous sounds coming out from the ensemble last night in Carnegie Hall had been instilled in them many years ago by George Szell. What Maestro Welser‑Möst accomplished was to enhance those sounds. Last night he created what Szell would never dare: a singular experiment with two great composers.

Rather than take Alban Berg’s string arrangement of the chimerical Lyric Suite in its entirety, he divided up the three middle movements, with the two movements of Schubert’s “Unfinished”. The result was, yes, beautifully played, especially by those Cleveland strings. But conductor Welser‑Möst gave a perhaps unconscious history lesson.

First the performance. Mr. Welser‑Möst was made for Schubert and Berg. Both composers were played with the most powerful baton. It is extraordinarily difficult to plow through the Kabbalistic numerical secrets of the Lyric Suite without referencing the score, an abacus and a Wittgenstein thesaurus. What Mr. Welser‑Möst did was conduct the three movements as if they came from Gustav Mahler. The secret notation referring to Berg’s infatuation with a woman was explained in the program notes. But the sounds could have come from 19th Century Vienna.

Which brings us to the Schubert. This was not the “nice” Unfinished loathed by every musical student. The tempos were right–but Mr. Welser‑Möst brought a dynamism rarely heard. Schubert’s sudden changes of mood–perhaps the composer’s own secret language–were like agonizing thrusts. The crescendos of the opening movements were not “pleasant” early Romantic. The orchestra throbbed and breathed. One didn’t listen to Schubert the master technician as the participant into both pain and triumph.

Now what did these Berg-Schubert separation of movements indicate? Yes, the lyric and unfettered emotion of both composers. But more essentially, the century’s divergences.

Briefly, Schubert’s Age of Enlightenment and Berg’s Age of Freud.

The Schubert symphony “spoke” of external pain, outward longings, startling musical images. Berg’s Lyric Suite was, if not more circumspect, but more hidden. The word unknown to Schubert, “Unconscious”, became the emotional factor of the notes.

The result was less a similarity than a symbiosis. And when Mr. Welser‑Möst went from the tense silence of the Berg opening movement to the equally tense silent opening of the Schubert, one felt the inner and outer mood of both composers, linked in sheer inspiration.

After the intermission, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus joined the Orchestra for Schubert’s final Mass written just before his death. The soloists, noted above, were fine as an ensemble. But they had little to do. Instead, this was a 90 percent choral work. And what choruses!!

The Cleveland Orchestra Choir is a massive group. (Had the composer heard the Mass, which he didn’t, he would have been duly impressed.) But their control and flexibility make them most worthy of this music. It was too joyous, to exultant for the composer’s Requiem, but Mr. Welser‑Möst brought all the variety to the work. They could bring a fine sound to the Gloria and Cum spirito Sancto, but Mr. Welser‑Möst hushed them in an almost Credo.

We had several fugues (was the composer reading Bach?), most unexpected moments in the Sanctos and only a few sections where Schubert became almost mundane.

This was a wonderful work, sung beautifully. Yet after this most impressive external church music, one retained, first, the great playing of the Cleveland Orchestra. And second, the arcana, the mysteries, the cries and whispers of Berg and Schubert coalescing through the history of music and mind.

Harry Rolnick



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