The Cleveland Orchestra and their music director Franz Welser-Möst opened the 2015/16 Severance Hall season with incendiary performances of Mozart and Richard Strauss on Thursday evening. Welser-Möst’s performance was on high voltage, and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony were thrilling from beginning to end.

Franz Welser-Most © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Most
© Roger Mastroianni

Mozart had a musically fallow period from 1786-87, with family tragedy (the death of three children) and evidence of gambling debts, which required him to ask for money from friends. Nonetheless, in 1788 he emerged from his personal difficulties to compose his final three symphonies, nos. 39-41. This first movement of the Symphony no. 41 in C major was marked by contrasts of alternating sharply rhythmic and delicate phrasing. Welser-Möst adopted a sensible tempo, not rushed, allowing for flexibility in the pulse of the movement. The second movement was performed as if it were a wordless operatic ensemble, with the melodies traded among the instrumental groups. The orchestra had a remarkably subtle “singing quality” to its playing. The Minuet and Trio was sturdy, again with exquisite tracery. In the closing movement, the players took Mozart’s direction of Molto allegro to heart. Although it was brisk, the tempo never seemed rushed. Mozart combined traditional sonata form with fugal sections. The fugues were treated with great clarity, developing to a glorious frenzy at the end. This was a finely detailed performance.

The performers were packed with little room to spare onto the Severance Hall stage for Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. The assemblage included a four-manual organ console, two harps, wind machine, thunder-sheet, two sets of timpani and maximum complements of brass, winds and strings. The gargantuan work, lasting just under an hour in 22 continuous sections of varying lengths, was begun in 1911, but not finished and first performed until 1915, notably after the operas, Salomé, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier. There are echoes of all of these works in An Alpine Symphony, which was Strauss’ last symphonic poem.

Strauss was also influenced by the new medium of moving pictures, and the music scenes depicting the ascent of the mountain move cinematically, and vary in length from several minutes to a just a few seconds. In order to keep track of the progress, there was a small screen installed above the stage (as is used for operatic supertitles) that displayed the titles of the sections. Much of the music was self-descriptive; in a few places, it was more abstract and the projected titles were helpful. 

From the soft, mysteriously descending scales that open the work and a blaze of sunrise orchestral glory, the virtuosity of The Cleveland Orchestra was ever present. There were many striking moments; for instance, the off-stage brass fanfares in “The Ascent Begins”; later cascades of downward scales as Strauss depicts an Alpine waterfall, followed by sounds of ranz de vaches (Swiss cow horns) and cowbells in a mountain pasture. At the summit of the mountain, Strauss begins with a hesitant solo oboe over high string tremolos, before opening up blazing brass chorales and a rhapsodic full orchestra passage overwhelming in volume and complexity. There is a great storm as the hikers descend, followed by a passage depicting sunset, glorious in its Straussian string writing. The journey ends, as it began, at night, with a return of the first descending scales. Throughout the performance, there were many opportunities for the orchestra’s principal players to shine. The augmented brass and winds were especially notable. This is music which is Franz Welser-Möst’s greatest strength. An Alpine Symphony runs the risk of becoming tawdry virtuosity for its own effect’s sake; that was never the case here. Under this conductor’s leadership there was a natural arc, ebbing and flowing, building to the climax at the summit, but then returning to where it began.

An unusually long and vocal ovation rewarded the performers at the end of the concert. The Cleveland Orchestra almost never performs encores at Severance Hall, but Welser-Möst and the orchestra finished  the evening with a serene and lyrical performance of the “Moonlight Music” from Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio. It was magical.