Although Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was the headline work for the September 27th Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall, the big news was principal oboist Frank Rosenwein’s personal triumph as soloist in Richard Strauss’ 1946 Oboe Concerto, with music director Franz Welser-Möst conducting.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni

Strauss’ Concerto for oboe and small orchestra was inspired by a chance meeting near the end of World War II between the composer and the young American oboist John de Lancie. Through the vagaries of musical politics, de Lancie, who was the assistant principal oboe in the Philadelphia Orchestra, was deprived of playing both the world and American premieres of the concerto. In one of the oddities of musical history, the American first performance was played by another young oboist, who some years later became famous with American audiences as Mitch Miller of the 1960s “Sing Along with Mitch” television show.

The solo part in the concerto is of surpassing difficulty, requiring extreme stamina and breath control, as well as the technique known as circular breathing, in which the performer takes in air and at the same time expelling air through the oboe’s reed. As Frank Rosenwein played the intricate part, the thought kept occurring: “When is he going to breathe?” Many passages in the solo are written as if for Strauss’ dream soprano with unlimited coloratura technique and no need to breathe. It is a very long part; the soloist is playing almost constantly, sometimes subsumed into the texture of the orchestra. Strauss’ orchestration is delicate; often the soloist is accompanied by countermelodies in the orchestral winds. The three movements are played without pause, joined by transitional music.

The performance was one of ebb and flow. Franz Welser-Möst is at his best in Strauss’ music, and there was strong communication between conductor and soloist. Mr. Rosenwein's playing seemed technically flawless and musically alert. It is hard to imagine a more accomplished performance. This was far and away the highlight of the evening and likely one of the highlights of the 2012/13 season.

The concert opened with Paul Hindemith’s 1922 depiction of urban modernity, Kammermusik no. 1 for small orchestra (four winds, five strings, piano, accordion and percussion). The first, second and fourth movements are jaunty and include references to popular songs and dances of the time. The third movement is a three-strophe “quartet”, polyphonically textured for flute, clarinet and bassoon. The division between the strophes is marked by very quiet strikes on a single glockenspiel note. The Cleveland Orchestra members made this austere slow movement memorably haunting. The last movement (“Extremely lively”) was fun to listen to, with torrents of notes, not all of which seemed necessary. The whole affair ends with the roar of a police siren. Mr. Welser-Möst led a persuasive performance of this rarely-heard work.

After intermission, Mr. Welser-Möst and the orchestra offered Hector Berlioz’s depiction of “an artist’s” (i.e. his own) obsessive love, the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830. One is still struck by the brilliance of Berlioz’s orchestration and musical imagination. Two words characterize this particular performance of Berlioz’s masterpiece: “Not Bad”. Perhaps it was the extraordinary performance of the Strauss concerto that preceded it, but one’s mind kept wandering back to Strauss, while Berlioz was languishing in his personal musical passion. That is, until the fourth and fifth movements, when things took wing musically. Mr. Welser-Möst and the musicians caught the raucous spirit of the “March to the Scaffold”. The concluding “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” exploited the weirdness of the scene depicted, especially the development of the Gregorian theme from the Mass for the Dead, Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), and the tolling bells out of rhythmic sequence with the rest of the orchestra. The culminating climax of orchestral sound brought the audience to their feet.

****1