The Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst is back in town for two weeks of concerts prior to taking the orchestra on an extensive international tour, traversing several European music centers before making their way to the Middle East where they will be the first American orchestra to perform at the Abu Dhabi Festival. This week’s program paired two works of maximal contrast: Křenek’s starkly atonal Statisch und Ekstatisch for modest chamber orchestra, and Mendelssohn’s lushly Romantic Lobgesang for large orchestra buttressed by chorus and a trio of soloists. If there is one common thread, surely it would be both works’ obscurity in the concert hall: Thursday marked TCO’s first performance of the Křenek, and only the second of the Mendelssohn, with the previous outing over three decades ago.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Dating from 1971-72, Statisch und Ekstatisch is cast in ten terse, untitled movements. Its expressive and succinct atonality perhaps recalls the various sets of orchestral pieces from the Second Viennese School. As the title suggests, this was music of contrasts and extremes, with the first selection firmly in the static category: glassy, stagnant strings, in due course countered by percussive gestures in the piano. A veritable musical pointillism was often a favored texture, wherein fragments of melody were distributed amongst the ensemble, executed with commendable precision. Extended techniques gave the work a unique stamp, for instance, plucking the piano strings (no. 4) and directing the bell of the trumpet and trombone into the piano (no. 6) – rather more ecstatic on the spectrum at hand and at times hinting at the composer’s impending turn towards neo-Romanticism. It was certainly the ecstatic that had the final word, closing matters with a percussive thud.

While catalogued as Symphony no. 2, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang was chronologically the fourth he wrote, and moreover, it has been suggested that he never intended for it be categorized as a symphony: structurally it’s worlds apart from the other four. The work began with a tripartite Sinfonia for orchestra alone, but no mere introduction as it spanned about a third the length of the piece. Imposing trombones opened with a stern theme in dotted rhythms that would recur throughout, duly answered by the more plangent strings. Welser-Möst carried on at a brisk tempo without sacrificing pinpoint accuracy in this Mendelssohnian blend of lyricism and drama. A gently rollicking second section was perhaps a tad rushed, while the Andante religioso was of reverent solemnity.

Martina Janková, Christina Landshamer, Franz Welser-Möst and Julian Prégardien
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Following the Sinfonia, we were saturated in the full glory of the chorus and organ, seamlessly coalesced with the orchestra. Composed in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press, the text was drawn from the Lutheran bible, which the Gutenberg press surely proliferated. Soprano Martina Janková had the first soloist entry, of dulcet tones. Tenor Julian Prégardien was introduced by way of a recitative, blossoming into a lyrical aria with sharply-articulated German diction. “Ich harrete des Herrn” served as a highlight in its duet between Janková and fellow soprano Christina Landshamer, their evenly matched vocal types blending beautifully, enhanced by the warmth of the horns. The Chorus navigated cleanly through the dense textures of “Die Nacht ist vergangen”, leading to one of the most striking moments: the chorale “Nun danket alle Gott mit Herzen”, initially presented unaccompanied and arresting in its simple directness. Exhausting all possible combinations of soloists, Janková joined forces with Prégardien in a pensive gem before the splendor of the choral finale.

It was only fitting that at the beginning of the second half the Chorus was honored as recipient of The Cleveland Orchestra’s annual Distinguished Service Award – a pity this is the last chance to hear them during the current season.