The Cleveland Orchestra opened its annual summer residence on Saturday at the Blossom Music Center, about 40 miles south of Cleveland and just north of Akron. Situated among the forest of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Blossom Music Center is an oasis of natural calm amid an otherwise urban environment. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst led the opening night program of Beethoven and Berlioz that showed The Cleveland Orchestra on top form, and gave a preview of some of the repertoire that will be heard later in the 2017/18 season as part of the orchestra’s 100th anniversary observances.

Franz Welser-Möst © Carl Juste
Franz Welser-Möst
© Carl Juste

The compositional contrast between Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique could not have been more striking for works written only 28 years apart. Beethoven’s 1802 symphony paid his debt to Haydn’s Classical symphonic style and began a transition that would come to fruition in his Third (“Eroica”) Symphony. By 1830, when Berlioz composed Symphonie fantastique, Romanticism was in full flower.

From the first accented chords contrasted with legato chorales in the extended introduction to the Second Symphony’s first movement, Welser-Möst made a careful balance between dramatic and lyrical passages. The gorgeous second movement was calm and delicate. It was in this movement that we find Beethoven developing his musical materials to much greater length and complexity that had Haydn. Phrases were molded sensitively, with the dialogue of the solo flute later in the movement being a beautiful example. The third movement abandons Haydn’s Minuet/Trio form for a rambunctious scherzo. The finale brought all of these characteristics together, for brilliantly accented passages set against suddenly contrasting dynamics and mood. Yet throughout all of these contrast Welser-Möst maintained the overall good humor of the movement.

If Beethoven’s symphony was an outgrowth of Classical ideals, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique progressed in its hallucinatory vision of obsessive love through each succeeding movement. Welser-Möst carefully built the overall tension of the work from the opening introduction in which the “artist” and “beloved” – perhaps shorthand for Berlioz himself and his unrequited love, actress Harriet Smithson – are introduced. The musical theme of the artist’s obsession, the so-called idée fixe is at first innocent in the sweetly liquid phrases of the first movement, “Passions.” The second movement is set at “A Ball” in which the artist sees his beloved among waltzing dancers. The two solo harps were magical in the waltz’s extended introduction. The Cleveland Orchestra had just the right amount of “lift” in the phrases of the waltz.

Berlioz’s imagination starts to get overwrought in what should be the pastoral “Scene from the Country.” Two shepherd’s pipes (English horn and off-stage oboe solos) trade phrases. Even on a calm summer evening, the artist cannot get the beloved out of his mind, and the music depicts his conflicted throughts. The disquiet concludes with very soft timpani rolls representing distant thunder.

It is in the fourth and fifth movements that the artist’s opium-induced hallucinations take over. He has poisoned his beloved and condemned to execution by the guillotine. The musical themes for “March to the Scaffold” are mostly scalar, with garish blasts from the brass. Welser-Möst kept control over the music’s growing in intensity, until the final drumroll before the guillotine’s blade drops.

The closing movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath”, lets loose with horrifying images, distorted phrases, and a bell tolling out of sync with the rest of the orchestra. In this performance the bell was played off-stage, soaring creepily above the ensemble. As part of the hellish scene, Berlioz introduces that great death-and-destruction theme, the Gregorian Sequence from the Requiem Mass, Dies irae, turned into a ridiculous dance played in the high range of the E flat clarinet.

This was a thrilling performance of Symphonie fantastique, in which Welser-Möst and the orchestra capitalized on Berlioz’s musical architecture to its fullest extent.