The final weeks of The Cleveland Orchestra’s landmark 100th season have come, and the orchestra isn’t shying away from going out with a bang by way of a traversal of the nine Beethoven symphonies, a cycle to be presented three times on as many continents: locally at Severance Hall, and shortly thereafter at Vienna’s Musikverein and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Branded as The Prometheus Project, the series seeks to view Beethoven through the lens of the eponymous Titan from Greek mythology who defied the gods in giving fire to humankind, in effect, speaking truth to power in service of the greater good and the possibility of self-determination.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

This is an idealism that wanders through much of Beethoven’s music, and moreover, was not far removed from the central values behind the French and American revolutions – fitting for this quintessentially American orchestra. Perhaps there’s a tinge of self-indulgence in closing with a Beethoven symphony cycle (an industrious archivist has tabulated over 2000 performances of a Beethoven symphony throughout the orchestra’s history), but this has hardly been a season of resting on laurels, and one could scarcely imagine a more festive and celebratory way to conclude.

Franz Welser-Möst has demonstrated a singular commitment to the project, providing detailed commentary on each symphony in the extensive program books and participating in a thought-provoking conversation with Beethoven scholar Mark Evan Bonds the previous night. Fittingly, the first music heard was the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. Bold chords gave way to a noble lyricism, and more rapid passages emanated sparks of inspiration. This was an energetic warm-up to the symphonies, evoking the clarity, balance, and precision that defines this orchestra’s approach to Beethoven.

A gentle and unassuming slow introduction opened the Symphony no. 1 in C major, naturally flowing into the Allegro con brio which was marked by brief gestures of vigor and a more songful secondary theme that benefited from a woodwind section in top form. Despite being the composer’s inaugural symphonic effort, Welser-Möst’s interpretation was far removed from merely an imitation of Haydn or Mozart, but was idiomatically Beethovenian, who all but unraveled the pearly classicism of his forebears – apparent even in this youthful work. The graceful slow movement was colored by deft shades of minor and an elegant counterpoint of voices, while the jocular minuet marked a clear move towards the orchestral scherzo. A central trio offered contrast although the full orchestra was rallied in due course; following a stately introduction, the kinetic finale was given a vigorous workout.

Rather than proceeding strictly chronologically, Welser-Möst sought contrasts and complements, closing the first installment with the epochal Eroica. The orchestra blossomed in size substantially, equipped with the resources to deliver a fittingly grandiose reading of the opening movement. A triadic melody outlined its heroic E flat major tonality, yet it was peppered with the non-chord tones that would lead the movement on an arduous trajectory. Already opting for a brisk tempo choice, Welser-Möst jettisoned the repeat of the exposition and plunged headstrong into the massive development. Tensions built and dissonances piled on top of one another for a climactic outburst of immense power, still sounding jarringly modern even after well over two centuries.

Heroism fell to darkness in the Marcia funebre, characterized by a give-and-take between dotted funereal rhythms and a more long-bowed melody with particularly fine contributions from principal oboe Frank Rosenwein. A maggiore section evidenced persistent embers of triumph in a movement that otherwise scaled tragic heights. Despite the vivacious volleys of notes, the scherzo was tightly controlled, both in terms of precision of execution and the often very soft dynamic level, and the brass had a moment in the spotlight during the trio – gleaming yet mellow. The finale was a daunting set of variations on a theme Beethoven first used in The Creatures of Prometheus, thematically tying the work both the opening of the evening and the festival as a whole. The theme appeared in a myriad of guises and colors, inexorably moving forward as if propelled by a Promethean animus, and triumph prevailed in the grand and bellicose conclusion, setting a high bar indeed for the cycle’s four remaining installments.