As The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th anniversary season winds down this week, what better for a finale than Franz Welser-Möst’s “Prometheus Project,” a cycle of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s symphonies, four overtures, and the Grosse Fuge? Welser-Möst’s argument for this venture was Beethoven’s philosophical attitude: as a man of the age of Enlightenment, modeling humans fighting for the good of mankind, as did the ancient Greek superhero Prometheus. In several essays for the souvenir program book for this cycle, Welser-Möst commented on Beethoven’s philosophy as reflected in the composer’s works. The week ended with a three-performance series including Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op.125, with the Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op.133 as the opener, showing The Cleveland Orchestra in absolutely top form.

Franz Welser-Möst at the podium (17 May concert) © Ken Blaze, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst at the podium (17 May concert)
© Ken Blaze, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The Grosse Fuge is one of Beethoven’s most mysterious works, originally intended as the last movement of the String Quartet, Op.130, but jettisoned to become an independent work. It is one of Franz Welser-Möst’s signature pieces; he has performed it with The Cleveland Orchestra on several previous occasions. As much challenged intellectually by the relationship of Beethoven’s philosophy to his late, thorny, experimental music, The Cleveland Orchestra brought precision of intonation and unity of phrasing that, in a performance by a lesser group, could have been a muddled mess. The double basses doubled the cello part, and despite their accuracy, there was a bottom-heavy, dark sound to the performance.

The “grand fugue” consists of several sections, not all of which are contrapuntal. A mysterious introduction precedes the first fugal section with its sharply dotted rhythms and complex counterpoint that winds back around itself. A lyrical melody interrupts out of nowhere, followed by more fugal passages. Although the music becomes increasingly fragmented and tortured until its end, Franz Welser-Möst clearly delineated Beethoven’s structure.

The Cleveland Orchestra (17 May concert) © Ken Blaze, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
The Cleveland Orchestra (17 May concert)
© Ken Blaze, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Beethoven pushed the Classical symphonic form to its limits in his Ninth Symphony, opening the door for the next generation of Romantic symphonists. Beethoven’s opening passage in A minor presaged by 40 years the same primeval undulations as Richard Wagner’s famous E flat major pedal-point and arpeggio that begin Das Rheingold. The forms and motivic development are stretched, finally ending with his setting of Schiller’s great ode to the triumph of the human spirit.

This concert’s performance was never frantic or forced, but with sensibly vital tempos throughout and every detail in place. For example, the differentiation in wind articulation in the second movement was clear but natural-sounding. The main violin melody of the third movement Adagio was exquisitely phrased.

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (17 May concert) © Ken Blaze, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (17 May concert)
© Ken Blaze, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

It is, of course, the fourth movement Finale that audiences await in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and there should have been no disappointment here. Erin Wall, Jennifer Johnston, Norbert Ernst, and Dashon Burton were an unusually well-matched quartet of soloists, and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, whose current acting director, Lisa Wong, has just been promoted to Director of Choruses, had a blended, full sound, with no issues of intonation and strikingly clear diction. Franz Welser-Möst ratcheted up the tension throughout the last movement to its final coda and cadence, whereupon the audience unanimously leaped to their feet with shouts, cheers and whistles in prolonged appreciation of a thrilling performance.

When Adella Prentiss Hughes founded The Cleveland Orchestra in 1918, who could have predicted that it would become the world-renowned organization it is today? But we, the beneficiaries of her legacy, can be proud of and grateful for the risks that she and rich Cleveland magnates took a century ago. The evidence of success is in the listening.

*****