His recent bow out of the Vienna Staatsoper has been in the news, but last evening Maestro Franz Welser-Möst was firmly in the saddle of the distinguished Cleveland Orchestra as they performed Brahms and Widmann together in the Stars and Stripes series in Amsterdam. Space and time were slightly confused as older traditions and future speculations mingled mid air. Welser-Möst follows in the footsteps of some classical music giants in Cleveland (Szell, Maazel and Dohnányi); the past must weigh heavy at times. His performance in Amsterdam landed smack in the middle of the chatter and race towards the next Concertgebouw Music Directorship so the future was on everyone’s mind.

Franz Welser-Most © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Most
© Roger Mastroianni
Elegance is key to Welser-Möst performances. He prefers the sparkle of silver to the warmth of gold. After a distinguished Brahms Festouverture (and a massive, messy and noisy change of seating: so unfortunate for our short term musical memories!) we were transported from ivy-covered academic courtyards to misty, richly green Japanese mountains from the very first notes of Jörg Widmann’s enticing Flûte en suite. Written for Cleveland’s principal Joshua Smith, a musician with the voluptuous tone and natural stature of a soloist, the piece worked exceptionally well in Amsterdam’s crystal clear acoustics. Widmann’s three movement score is quite fascinating. Chromatic scales, repeated motives, whiffs of both Bach and Pachebel, it would befit an excellent, abstract film. The piece is not so much a dialogue between soloist and orchestra as an obbligato accompaniment to a (voiceless) aria. A stunning performance by both Smith and his orchestral colleagues. We could have done without the PDQ Bach-like humor that ends it all. With cock-eyed references to Bach’s Badinerie, the beauty that had preceded again fell victim to short term memory.

Taking his seat to perform as principal, Joshua Smith settled into Brahms Second Symphony after the intermission. The Cleveland sound is luscious: abundant, warm strings and solid brass. More is the pity that the Brahms performance was just a bit too stiff upper lip. Always aristocratic - there was happily no false sentimentality - it was all slightly chilly. This performance never grabbed us by the throat as the beloved Second Brahms Symphony most certainly can. The limited elasticity between the long, luxurious lines betrayed breathlessness. Posed questions were answered moments too soon, diminishing their urgency. The human rhetoric of this magnificent narrative was, despite being at all times elegant, slightly business as usual. No meaty, romantic melancholy. Displaced accents in the third movement were only faintly displaced. In the final movement there was authority, but again, all was rather hurried: rushed as opposed to urgent.

Needless to say, the Cleveland Orchestra is a magnificent instrument and Maestro Welser-Möst is a superb, erudite and dedicated musician. All the correct ingredients were there but last evening’s sumptuous feast needed, at least during the second half, an additional pinch of allspice to ward off the autumnal chill.