Even by their own high standards, The Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor on Thursday evening with music director Franz Welser-Möst conducting, was extraordinary in its musical achievement. The orchestra’s usual technical unanimity was enhanced by a depth and warmth of sound not always associated with their lean precision.

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni | The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni | The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst treated the five-movement symphony (in three parts) as a single extended narrative, from the funeral march of the first movement to the thrilling D major transfiguration of the finale. The funeral march was taken at a leisurely – but not slow – pace, more gentle and mournful, but with a world-weary heaviness and dramatic explosions along the way. Even the opening solo trumpet fanfares – played by principal Michael Sachs – were relatively soft and understated, as if from a distance. The second movement followed on almost without pause, the effect of which was to draw thematic connections to the first movement. There was a clarity of texture that allowed small details to emerge; the wind dialogue passages were precise and balanced. A later cello unison passage was exquisite: soft, delicate, emotional. The brass chorales in the middle of the movement were thrilling and full, but not blasting.

The Scherzo was beautifully played, but there was one logistical miscalculation that distracted from the overall performance. Newly-installed principal horn, Nathaniel Silberschlag, left his seat in the section and stood at the front of the orchestra in soloist position. It is true that there are numerous solo horn passages in the movement, and Silberschlag is a very fine performer, with polished tone, impeccable intonation and phrasing. But the mechanics of his performance – stooping to pick up and drink from a water bottle, emptying spit from his instrument, moving the cuffs of his shirt and jacket – were a constant visual distraction that the musical result did not overcome, even though the Mahler’s often dense polyphony was clarified, with strands emerging from the overall texture. Once I closed my eyes, the musical excellence was even more apparent.

Franz Welser-Möst, Nathaniel Silberschlag and The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni | The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, Nathaniel Silberschlag and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni | The Cleveland Orchestra

The famous strings-and-harp Adagietto was lyrical, moving along, never lugubrious. The ebb and flow of the musical pulse seemed as if the movement was a single long phrase, with the notes of the harp punctuating the line.

The last movement Rondo-Finale washed away the somberness of much of what had come before it. The playing was urgent, even within the softer passages. Welser-Möst had a clear plan for the architecture of the movement as the summary of what had come before it. At the end, the ensemble, but especially the brass sections, covered themselves with glory. Even for those of us who hear The Cleveland Orchestra regularly, this performance was a stunning achievement that will live on in memory.

The concert opened with a striking work by Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, Masaot / Clocks Without Hands, first performed in 2015. (Masa’ot is the plural of a Hebrew word for journey). It is a phantasmagoria of references to passing time – including multiple ticking metronomes at different speeds and other musical representations of clocks spread through the orchestra – and dream-like references to snippets of other music, both classical, folk songs (or facsimiles) – even klezmer tunes. A comparative analogue would be if crusty New Englander Charles Ives had written his fourth symphony while on the lam in turn-of-century Vienna, but instead of Protestant hymns and popular and patriotic tunes, he had used Austrian folk songs and klezmer music.

Neuwirth’s music is complex, often very dissonant, but there were many arresting moments in its performance. Who knows if it was all accurate, but Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra made a compelling case for the twenty-minute work. It should be played again.