The Cleveland Orchestra is now a successful two for two in its 2015/16 season, both in artistic integrity and in programming works requiring a gargantuan orchestra. Last week’s opening concert Alpine Symphony by Strauss was followed up this week with Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3. It was the only work on the program and was performed without intermission. The rest of the audience seemed to be as riveted by Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation as I was; there was little of the restlessness that one sometimes encounters with such a long unbroken span of music. But Mahler himself provided variety enough for even the most casual listener to be absorbed.

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

Mahler composed the Symphony No. 3, over the course of two summers in 1895 and 1896; some sketches exist from as early as 1893. The second through sixth movements were composed first, with the 30-minute first movement the last to be completed. Although Mahler ultimately disavowed any programmatic context in the symphony, he was, however, influenced (as in others of his works) by nature, love and the meaning of life itself.

The first movement has two thematic elements, one ominous and threatening, introduced at the very beginning in the horn section with strokes on the bass drum and later taken up by the low strings and brass. The second theme is light and delicate, appearing repeatedly in the upper winds. These two musical chunks alternate and are developed at very great length through the movement. The brass sections of The Cleveland Orchestra brass covered themselves in honor throughout this performance, although the horn section at had a few more fluffed notes than is usual in this organization. Principal trombone Massimo La Rosa and principal horn Gail Williams were especially impressive. Even though the orchestra is very large, and Mahler created huge climaxes, the orchestration is often quite spare, with just a few instruments playing contrapuntally. Instruments are used for their color, sometimes just for a couple of notes of punctuation. The orchestra under Welser-Möst was notable in its clarity and attention to dynamic detail. Indeed, he observed the importance of silence in the movement as much as the music itself. The first movement ended in a blaze of fortissimo Technicolor glory.

The second movement Tempo di Menuetto featured very delicate dotted rhythms, at times with swirling strings off on their own flights of fancy. The texture is colored by momentary touches of percussion, especially a light triangle and glockenspiel.

The third movement had a nostalgic feel, beginning with a rustic scherzo-like momentum, but later settling into a long, picturesque offstage solo for the posthorn (a trumpet-like brass instrument). Principal trumpet Michael Sachs created a magical atmosphere, in dialogue with the orchestra, especially a passage with the solo combined with two solo horns. At times the movement is a lullaby, but it ends on a gigantic staccato chord.

The fourth movement, a setting of a passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, for alto solo with the orchestra at its most restrained. American mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor was magnificent. Although billed as a mezzo, her voice has the dark, burnished sound of a true contralto, but never muddy. She controlled the long, slow-moving phrases, and the sense of suspended time and lament was captured perfectly. The orchestration was full of sounds of the night, especially the peculiar upward glissandi in the solo oboe, played precisely by Frank Rosenwein, mimicking some odd bird song.

From the darkness of night, Mahler moved into brilliant, joyful day in the fifth movement setting of one of the Das Knaben Wunderhorn songs (the tune of which later reappears in the soprano solo in the last movement of Mahler’s fourth symphony).  The women of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus were immaculately prepared, singing with transparency and clear diction. Kelly O’Connor, in a very different mood, evoked the heavenly joy of childhood expressed in the text.

The final movement, an immense, peaceful Adagio, is contrapuntal, with strands of the orchestra coming together and disintegrating. In the stillness there is a flute solo over very soft strings. Here, and elsewhere in the symphony, principal flute Joshua Smith and piccolo Mary Kay Fink added just the right color to the texture. A soft brass chorale builds to a climax, but then disintegrates. Mahler again builds the text to a long closing fortissimo sustained chord, without percussion adornment, just the full, perfectly blended sound of The Cleveland Orchestra.

This performance was not just a collection of beautiful moments. Franz Welser-Möst created a unified musical whole capturing Mahler’s vision.  This concert should prove to be a highlight of the 2015/16 season in Cleveland.

****1