Franz Welser-Möst recently revealed that The Cleveland Orchestra now has the youngest audience in America: 20% of its concertgoers are under 25. This appetite for classical music is fuelled above all by exciting programmes that bridge the gap between tradition and the present. No surprise then to find that Welser-Möst had included in this summer’s touring programme with his Clevelanders two works by Wolfgang Rihm. A quite prodigious composer, having over 600 works to his name, Rihm resists all attempts at pigeonholing. He has, however, repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Schubert, so that composer’s final symphonic statement made a perfect companion to the first half.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Daniel Dittus

Both Verwandlung 2 and Verwandlung 3 are drawn from a six-part cycle, the German titles underlining the transformative character of each piece. Indeed, with this most protean of contemporary composers, everything is a metamorphosis, the material constantly changing and renewing itself but still retaining a sense of its origins. In all the density of the orchestration there is a recurring pattern: germ cells develop into fast-moving music which culminates in a dramatic explosion, only to subside and relax for reflection and repose before once again picking up steam. Welser-Möst’s Clevelanders were completely unfazed by all the technical challenges, the busyness of the strings contrasting with vibrant woodwind solos that included a fruity clarinet and quite lascivious-sounding flutter-tonguing from the flutes. At the end one could admire, but the heart wasn’t stirred.

The discipline and dedication of this orchestra can hardly be faulted. On both nights well before the concert began and again in the interval, the musicians were on stage practising and tuning. It is the mighty strings that form the power-house, especially apparent in this performance of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major. Traditionalists would certainly have approved: with no concessions to period influences and an absence of antiphonal violins, quadruple woodwind but just three horns and two trumpets, this was a juggernaut of a performance. The ear was constantly drawn to the impressive and unflagging power of the strings, grounded on nine double basses, and yet, despite the conductor’s Viennese connections, there was not that much warmth as such.

The Cleveland Orchestra in the Elbphilharmonie
© Daniel Dittus

Welser-Möst clearly has no time for modern attempts to turn the entire opening movement into a two-in-a-bar piece. Thus there was a tempo distinction between the Andante of the introduction and the subsequent body of the Allegro ma non troppo, and Welser-Möst drove quite forcefully into that movement’s coda, the strings with him all the way. With an exposition repeat and all the repeats in the Scherzo and Trio, this began to feel like a very long performance, Schumann’s reference to the “heavenly lengths” appearing slightly mocking. 

Welser-Möst’s handling of the score was not without incidental detail. In the first movement, he allowed the growlingly ominous trombones to add sombre colour with their rising scales, but also indulged in an element of quirkiness in the Scherzo. When the woodwind answered the initial string figuration, they were made to exaggerate the end of each phrase so that instead of a sense of real dialogue it became a matter of point-making. 

Spaciousness in Schubert is fine, but I missed rather more air around the textures. You can have a perfect blend in the woodwind sound, like melted chocolate dripping gently from a spoon, and the most evenly voiced of horn solos, but without much textural variety the overall effect ultimately becomes stultifying. This is unquestionably a staggeringly gifted ensemble, but I couldn’t quite dispel the feeling that in the conductor’s search for precision and perfection, the soul had somehow been driven out.