In addition to the al fresco summer performances at Blossom Music Center, The Cleveland Orchestra also presents Summers@Severance for those wanting a more traditional concert hall experience at Severance Hall. The programs in the series generally fall on the briefer side, but provide a fine opportunity to see the orchestra within city limits throughout the summer season. Friday marked the first of this summer’s offerings with music director Franz Welser-Möst at the helm, pairing works of Mahler and Beethoven – from opposite ends of the 19th century and of their composer’s respective careers.

Franz Welser-Möst © Michael Pöhn
Franz Welser-Möst
© Michael Pöhn

Mahler’s early Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen brought forth baritone Ludwig Mittelhammer – last seen on this stage during the orchestra’s memorable performance of Ariadne auf Naxos and the beginning of the year. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht was marked by resonant clarinets, folksy but not without an ineffable melancholy. Much of Mahler’s instrumentation scales the orchestra down to chamber proportions, yet when it swelled to full forces one wanted stronger projection from Mittelhammer. Still, the baritone came across as heartfelt and genuine. Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld – familiar from its subsequent interpolation in the First Symphony – was a rather more cheerful and chipper affair, complete with chirping pings on the glockenspiel. Graceful winds and strings were wholly at peace, only to give way to a doleful coda wherein the singer lamented that for him such bliss can never be. The fiery Ich hab' ein glühend Messer served as a desperate response, while Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz was a heart-wrenching withdrawal, given as an intimate conversation between baritone and orchestra.

“Beethoven’s enigmatic Late Quartets… feel so very physical and substantial, so that having them played by just four musicians at times doesn’t seem to be enough,” wrote Welser-Möst on his impetus to transcribe the String Quartet in A minor, Op.132 for string orchestra – a treatment he also granted to the Große Fuge. In any case, it made a welcome alternative to programming one of the symphonies, and an opportunity to hear a fresh take on a masterwork. In expanding the forces from string quartet to string orchestra, Welser-Möst drew out the orchestral potential often only hinted at. Double basses were introduced, placed in an imposing row in the back – generally an octave doubling of the cellos to add a striking gravitas. Despite the validity of such a pursuit, the dividends were inconsistent: there were points at which matters felt oversaturated, as if the intimacy so essential to the medium got lost in the masses.

Following the seriousness of the opening movement, the Allegro ma non tanto was fluid and flowing and, in the Trio, the symphony of strings at hand yielded a particularly delightful effect. The “Heiliger Dankgesang” is the bleeding heart of the work, given with a sonorous resound as the lofty double variations unfolded, alternating the mystical Lydian mode with the joyous to build to a climax so impactful that perhaps there the weight of the orchestra was needed to fully realize the depth of the composer’s vision. The march that followed was a foil in its brevity and levity, and solo scoring for concertmaster Peter Otto led to the finale, an essay of searching pathos.