Although the Chicago Symphony may have been far away at Milan’s La Scala Saturday evening, the potential void in the life of the Chicago concertgoer was amply filled by a neighboring Big Five ensemble, the Cleveland Orchestra under music director Franz Welser-Möst. The Symphony Center appearance was the culmination of a brief Midwest tour that was preceded by stops in Indiana and Iowa, and the orchestra’s first Chicago concert since 2002 (notwithstanding a scheduled 2011 performance of which a severe blizzard necessitated cancellation). The remainder of the Cleveland season on home turf features remarkably diverse repertoire, however, the tour program was a retreat to more mainstream fare in symphonies of Beethoven and Sibelius. While I have found Welser-Möst to be somewhat hit or miss in the standard symphonic literature, here his now 15 years as music director bore its fruits in these singularly engaging performances of cornerstone works.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

The Cleveland Orchestra is unique in its ability to cultivate a chamber-like intimacy as perhaps encouraged by the modest dimensions of their primary venue of Severance Hall, and this was abundantly apparent in Beethoven’s taut and economical Symphony no. 8 in F major.  There was crystal clear transparency in the opening movement – even the subtle countermelodies in the winds were given their due. Phrases were deftly shaped and appropriately punctuated by sforzandi, and a depth was probed to make the case that the Eighth is far more than merely the lightweight cousin of the mighty Seventh.

Featherlight textures characterized the fleeting Allegretto scherzando, as close as this spirited work has to a slow movement, while the following movement was a glance backwards to the old world minuet. Horns and timpani gave it a martial quality while the trio was wonderfully mellow, the horns now aided by the clarinet. Gossamer string playing opened the finale with matters growing increasingly arresting. Drama was achieved in the movement’s exploration of distant keys as well as keenly judged pauses, inexorably concluding in a frenzy of kinetic energy. The orchestra proved itself an instrument of precision and beauty in equal measure.

The ensemble blossomed to nearly twice the size for Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, yet not only was the immediacy of communication demonstrated in the Beethoven preserved, there was even greater strength in number. The warmth of the opening quickly gave way to a Nordic chill, and the composer’s often perplexing means of forward motion never felt rudderless under Welser-Möst’s direction. There was a very fine oboe solo from principal Frank Rosenwein, a familiar face on this stage having guested with the Chicago Symphony a handful of times in recent seasons. Climaxes were bracing if occasionally a bit harsh as if the orchestra was overcompensating for the larger hall, however, balance was largely very well achieved.

The forlorn vista of the slow movement began eerily with rolls in the timpani and pizzicato in the low strings before the main theme was introduced in the bassoons. The brass built to craggy peaks, with especially notable playing from principal trumpet Michael Sachs, but ultimately the movement ended in utter despair. The Vivacissimo exuded will-o’-the-wisp evanescence while the solo oboe provided moments of introspection, and the stentorian brass of the finale followed attacca. It was still a long journey to the end – for Sibelius, so often the reward is in the journey itself, and this was certainly the case with Welser-Möst’s dramatic pacing and acute narrative, building to the radiant finale chord.

The near-capacity audience responded with a tremendously enthusiastic ovation (where was this love for Cleveland during the Indians-Cubs World Series?), and the orchestra responded in kind with a generous encore, the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. It was a showcase especially of the Cleveland strings fronted by concertmaster William Preucil, from the rapid-fire playing of the opening to the lilting folk themes, although the winds certainly added a buoyant joviality. After the seriousness of the Sibelius, an ideal conclusion to the evening was to be had in the joyous abandon of this opera buffa.