Franz Welser-Möst’s programme was rather eclectic for this Carnegie Hall visit from the Cleveland Orchestra. Matthias Pintscher’s static, ethereal new work, Chute d’Étoiles (“Falling Stars”), found itself sandwiched between two of Beethoven’s busiest works, the Fourth Symphony and the Grosse Fuge, both of which are in the key of B flat major. Scriabin’s heady Le poème de l’extase then played coda to an already long concert. Trying to work out the connection between the four? So am I.

Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni 2010
Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni 2010

Beethoven and even new compositions are normal territory for Welser-Möst, who returns to Carnegie later in the season for three concerts with his (kind-of) other orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic. But Scriabin’s orgiastic, brazenly sexual, deliciously over-the-top tone poem? It’s not a link I’d naturally make, and this perfomance didn’t persuade me to think otherwise. Where other conductors might tease out Scriabin’s fragrant atmospherics of ecstacy, much of Welser-Möst’s performance had a distinctly buttoned-up feel to it. Restrained coyness is not exactly what might best be expressed by this composer’s tumultuous expression. (Incidentally, the piece itself was premièred in at Carnegie.) Still, the Cleveland Orchestra’s ravishing embrace of sound compensated, a welcome reminder that, away from the East Coast, some of the great American orchestras have retained their distinctive but heavily Germanic flavour.

The Beethoven was markedly more successful, albeit with reservations. The Grosse Fuge, which still shocks with its radical fractures and haywire development, received a fine performance. Originally written as the conclusion to the Op. 130 quartet but published separately, the Fuge was later orchestrated for strings by the great Wagnerian and Beethoven advocate Hans von Bülow. Appropriately to that late development, Welser-Möst employed a large body of strings, and gave this piece full-on Wagner treatment rather than the clarity and leanness so fashionable in Beethoven performances nowadays. Much like its peer, the finale to the Ninth Symphony, the Fuge can be read as a single movement constructed from smaller movements, and what was so impressive from Welser-Möst was his emphasis of this structure. Some of the gear changes were a bit abrupt, but Welser-Möst found superb mystery in the slow section, and even the necessary wit towards the end. (Even here, after all, Beethoven is nothing if not funny.) The Cleveland Orchestra’s strings deserve credit for playing this with the internal detailing and contrapuntal drama necessary for an enlarged quartet, even if I missed the purity of attack evident in the original.

The symphony was less impressive, but was notable for its clean and efficient textures. The most effective part was the slow introduction, employing a minimum of vibrato and pert woodwinds fully to express Beethoven’s search for a key. With a thrilling transition to the Allegro vivace – which very much focused on the vivace – things became a little hard-driven, particularly in the recapitulation. The slow movement had nobility, and even its fill of darkness, but might have found a longer line. The final two movements were technically superb, as is to be expected, performed with energy and agility at brisk tempi. To what end was less clear, for the finale in particular could have pursued less of a middle way and focused more on Beethoven’s innate wit or the intensity of harmonic development. Still, these are quibbles, and once again the orchestra were on fine form.

Poor Matthias Pintscher, though, finding his work sharing a programme with the Grosse Fuge. Not for nothing did both Schoenberg and Stravinsky admire this piece: the latter said in the 1960s that the Fuge is an “absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever”. (So, frankly, should be all of Beethoven’s music, but that’s another matter.) Chute d’Étoiles is mostly a homage to artist Anselm Kiefer’s sculptural installation of the same name, which was to be found in Paris five years ago, and takes the form of a concertante work for two trumpets.

The trumpeters work together rather than separately or against one another, recalling Pintscher’s early work, Janusgesicht (“Janus Face”). Chute d’Étoiles begins with a musical explosion, brassy and clangorous with percussion, before the trumpets use various techniques to chatter over a largely static background with occasional interruptions. Steadily all the pieces of the explosion come back together with ear-splitting notes from the trumpets. It is a powerful work, with an impressively metallic sound – Pintscher has spoken of his desire to express in sound the quality of Kiefer’s use of lead – but it lacks direction at times. The Cleveland Orchestra’s two trumpeters, Michael Sachs and Jack Sutte, were outstanding in the feature roles, their virtuosity entirely at the service of Pintscher’s music. But Pintscher did not benefit from this programming, regardless of how good was the performance of his work.