There was just one work on this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert, a taut reading of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in A minor (“Tragic”) led by music director Franz Welser-Möst. He was attuned to the dramatic aspects of the work and, it seemed at times, the characteristics that look forward to the beginnings of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, particularly in the unusual tonal relationships among the symphony’s four movements.

Franz Welser-Möst © Satoshi Aoyagi
Franz Welser-Möst
© Satoshi Aoyagi

The first movement begins as an impetuous march: forte, but not rushed, interposing a few moments of repose before returning. A second, passionate theme is introduced, and, according to Mahler’s widow, represented Alma herself, although there is no documentary evidence to support that assertion. Throughout the movement and elsewhere later in the symphony there are dreamy but mysterious passages featuring the celesta, and often other soloists. Indeed, The Cleveland Orchestra’s own players were the stars of this performance, especially solo horn and violin in the first movement. The complex development, at first glance a hodge-podge of Mahler’s array of themes thrown into the compositional blender, repeatedly combined in new ways, but always pushing toward a grand climax and a sudden ending.

The Andante moderato of the second movement is in E flat major, a key an augmented 4th (or, “the devil in music” tritone), from the A minor overall tonality of the symphony. It is a highly unusual key relationship. In an extensive program note, Möst notes that the key of E flat major was used by Beethoven and Mozart to portray human dignity. The movement has a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia (including the clanging of offstage cowbells, which, in fact, could have been a notch louder). The movement is the longest passage of quiet music in the symphony and featured another beautifully played horn solo.

The third movement is labeled a scherzo, but it is not the light movements of Mozart or Mendelssohn. It is restless, with accents that interrupt the pulse to seem constantly off-kilter. There is a brief “minuet” passage, but the raucous music again soon returns. Mahler even inserts part of a slow, almost tawdry waltz into the proceedings.

After a short introduction including celesta and harps, and low tuba tones, the lengthy last movement becomes a funeral march, developed at very great length, bringing back ideas from earlier in the symphony. Major chords become minor, and although there are moments of repose along the way, Franz Welser-Möst used the movement to illustrate the passing of life to death, signified by two huge strokes of a hammer. Yet unlike the glorious resurrection of Mahler’s Second Symphony, the ending here is inconclusive: death is certain, salvation is a question. Welser-Möst held that question in a long silence before lowering his baton and allowing applause. 

The four movements of the symphony were about 80 minutes in duration. In this performance, there was little chance to catch one’s breath, yet the audience never seemed restless; Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra rarely lingered, but they captured and held our attention. Ensemble was tight, and the many solos, especially in winds and brass, were impeccable. Their achievements were reflected by the audience’s response at the end. As a farewell before the orchestra departs on a three-week European tour, they played a brief, quiet encore of Josef Strauss’ Peine du Coeur, which softened the impact of the Mahler symphony’s ending.