It was about 10° Fahrenheit (-12°C) outside Severance Hall on Saturday evening, but Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra captured the warmth and sensuality of mythological Greece in a rare complete performance of Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. It was not until 1970 that Cleveland heard Daphnis complete, led by Pierre Boulez, whose 90th birthday will be celebrated by the orchestra in a special tribute concert next week. Boulez often conducted Ravel's works with this orchestra, so this was a fitting prelude to the upcoming celebration.

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

Composed between 1909 and 1912, Daphnis et Chloé had the misfortune of arriving on the musical scene in Paris within the same few years as Stravinsky's Firebird and Pétrouchka, and a few weeks after Sergei Diaghilev's ballet version of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Thus, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes only performed Daphnis twice during the 1912 season, conducted by Pierre Monteux, with choreography by Fokine, and Nijinsky and Karsavina in the title roles.

Ravel may be the greatest orchestrator for the modern symphony orchestra, despite unquestionable competition from his contemporaries Stravinsky and Debussy. Certainly the musical logistics of Daphnis are great: a massive orchestra – which in this performance took up every inch of Severance Hall's stage real estate – plus a large wordless mixed chorus that is integral to the orchestration. The orchestral color is intricate, especially in Ravel's use of the chorus as another section of the orchestra, but with its own distinct color. The required blending can be tricky, especially as here with the chorus on raised seating behind the orchestra, rather than behind the scene, as it would be for a danced performance. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, prepared by its director Robert Porco, managed the different colors with subtlety and warmth, with close attention to Ravel’s various neutral vowel sounds that form the “text”.

Welser-Möst was at his best in this performance. He managed the architecture of ballet as a cohesive structure. The orchestral textures shimmered, fading then reappearing radiantly. There are a number of passages requiring slow, gradual crescendos. These happened as if by magic (not to mention intense concentration on the part of the players); the sound moved from silence to blazing glory almost without it being noticeable. The principal players of the orchestra were peerless in their numerous solo passages. There were too many to list here, but hornist Richard King and, especially, flutist Joshua Smith were standouts.

The Cleveland Orchestra program book contained not only commentary on the music, but also provided a synopsis of the ballet’s scenario. The story of the ballet almost didn’t matter, such was the beauty and virtuosity of this performance. This performance promises to be one of the highlights of this Cleveland Orchestra season.

The short first half of the concert was devoted to Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major, K551 “Jupiter”, in a crisp, but flexible performance. A reduced-size orchestra was used. Welser-Möst’s tempi for the first three movements were relaxed and sensible, never frenetic. There were many beautiful turns of phrases, especially in the first movement, where the oboe and flute duet passages blended seamlessly into the whole. The second movement, with its muted strings and accented chordal interjections was gracious and tender. The minuet and trio were sturdy, but interspersed with passages of great delicacy. It was only in Mozart’s masterful fourth movement, with its complicated fugal passages molded into sonata form, that Welser-Möst took advantage of Mozart’s tempo marking of Molto allegro, to brilliant effect.