The Mistake on the Lake
Johannes Brahms: Academic Festival Overture; Symphony No. 1
Chen Yi: Si Ji
Franz Welser-Moest (conductor)
Okay, maybe it’s not fair to compare Franz Welser-Moest to George Szell. Szell was the greatest conductor of the last century and no one today, with the possible exception of his former assistant James Levine on his best days, can rival his clarity and stylistic mastery. But it is certainly legitimate to rank Welser-Moest against Christoph von Dohnanyi and here the current music director of the Cleveland Orchestra cannot literally hold his predecessor’s baton. After his pounding in the British press, I began to consider the young conductor as a victim. I have now heard him with his new band four times and there is no milk of human kindness left in me.
Monday night’s program at Carnegie Hall began with the Academic Festival Overture of Brahms, a piece that had tremendous personal significance for the composer who was never formally educated but who attained the rank of Doktor – those who have heard the Edison recording of Brahms will remember that he introduces himself emphatically with his title – and achieved great distinction as a collector and editor of scores. But the realization by the Clevelanders was unfocused and wayward, with absolutely no dramatic tension whatsoever. When the Gaudeamus Igitur emerged there was no feeling of triumph, no sense of accomplishment, no final summing-up. What’s the point of programming a work such as this and then not communicating its meaning? My companion asked a pointed question: How can such a dapper and well-groomed man conduct such a slovenly performance?
Next came a piece of contemporary Chinese music by Chen Yi. Ms. Chen was in attendance to receive the accolades of the crowd for what essentially was simply a watered-down film score snippet. Si Ji translates as “Four Seasons”, but to explicate in Vivaldian terms, each section was Winter.
The only positive in the performance of the Brahms First Symphony was that Mr. Welser-Moest did not keep us very long. Three of the four movements were rushed so maniacally that any beauty of phrase or grandeur of idea was completely trampled. This was Brahms First and so, even if your high school band were playing it, there would be some moments of splendor, but they were few and far between this night. The first movement allegro was spit out at a quickstep tempo, a concert march macabre. That perfect third movement was just a toss-off in W-M’s universe and led without as much as a full beat’s pause into the mach five finale. Except for the trumpets, who had a particularly bad night, the rest of the orchestra demonstrated that they could keep up even at such an artificial speed, but to what end? It’s bad enough that they have to live in Cleveland; now they have to perform with this hack?
Phrasing decisions by individual players were understandably affected by the indifference from the podium. For example, the horn call in the last movement was well enunciated but without the requisite crescendi. My sense is that the soloist did not extend his notes to include these powerful increases in volume at the end of each phrase because this entire performance felt the need for speed, most other passages clipped at their conclusions, no lingering allowed. And the wonderful alternating antiphonal sentences of the finale sounded simply like children’s taunts on the schoolyard when played at this pace.
The New York Times rather amusingly predicted this weekend that this concert would be very good, as the conductor did especially well with the music of his native Austrian brethren like Johannes Brahms. But Brahms was a German and Welser-Moest did not come through. Although there was some fine playing in the Andante, it hardly compensated for this insulting performance. Mr. Welser-Moest is not to be blamed for this. It was not his decision to hire him for this significant post. But the board in Cleveland needs to awaken from their slumbers. It’s time to give him his Severance pay.
Frederick L. Kirshnit