As The Cleveland Orchestra rounds out its 2015-16 Severance Hall season, the orchestra and Music Director Franz Welser-Möst must fall into the category of this week’s hardest working musicians, with four performances of three different programs. Besides two performances of Strauss’ Daphne, there was a repeat of last week’s program containing Strauss’ Sinfonia domestica, and Friday’s final new program of Messiaen and Dvořák. What a fine finale it was!

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

French composer, organist, ornithologist and teacher Olivier Messiaen settled on his personal harmonic language very early in his long career and steadfastly clung to it to the end. In 1932 Messiaen had not yet completely broken from the influence of Claude Debussy and Messiaen’s teacher, Paul Dukas, yet the harmonies are immediately identifiable as Messiaen's. The concert opened with his 1932 Hymne, originally titled Hymne au Saint-Sacrement. The score and parts disappeared during World War II and its aftermath; Messiaen reconstructed the work in 1947 from memory and shortened its title. There is melody: long, sinuous lines in the violins supported by quiet string accompaniment. The Cleveland players caught the sense of timelessness that is essential for the performance of Messiaen’s music. His music is not so much developed as assembled in repeated blocks with their own small-scale developments and variations. The passages of staccato chords in the high winds set against the slow-moving string melody later in the piece were exotic, creating an exotic and alluring orchestral texture. At the end there is a full-orchestra outburst, closing with a bright major chord.

Hymne is a minor work in Messiaen’s output, but 25 years later Chronochromie found Messiaen at his most austere and experimental, a master of his style, playing with the concepts of time, harmony, rhythm and, above all, birdsong, which had become, and was to remain, a central part of Messiaen’s works. The Cleveland Orchestra has a long association with Chronochromie, giving the first complete performance in 1967 and in the 1990s performing and making the definitive recording of the work under the leadership of Pierre Boulez. Franz Welser-Möst’s interpretation differed somewhat from that of Boulez, but was equally valid, with slightly softer edges, at times quite sensuous. There are several extended “cadenzas” consisting completely of birdsongs for the large percussion section. The xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel and chimes glittered in their precision and superb dynamic control, all the more miraculous because they were performed without conductor. The most famous (some might say, notorious) passage in the seven connected movements of Chronochromie is the penultimate “Épôde” for eighteen solo string players, each playing his or her own completely independent birdsong. It begins in one violin, with other players gradually entering and layering upon each, until – like flocks of birds singing – the whole mass of players is chattering away in joyous cacophony. It is fiendishly difficult to keep it all together. The movement is anything but random; it is strictly notated, and the conductor beats a steady pulse. The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst made Chronochromie an ecstatic showpiece of austere and sonorous beauty.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 5 in F major had a different kind of beauty, that of 19th century Romantic tonality. We were able to revel in the charm of Dvořák’s melodies and lush harmonies. Composed in 1875 when Dvořák was 33, the Fifth Symphony marked a maturation of the composer’s style. There are themes that appear in the first movement that reappear later and short musical motifs that form the basis of a whole movement.

After a pastoral opening, the first movement pulsed with robust life, with trumpet fanfares, but ending quietly, again in a pastoral mood, but with the fanfares transferred to the horns, almost as a distant echo. The orchestra played with surging authority and phrasing that carried the movement to its end. A descending four note pattern formed the basis of the melancholy second movement, linked to the Scherzo by a short transitional passage. In this performance it seemed like a joyous amalgam of a Mendelssohnian Scherzo and one of Dvořák’s own Slavonic Dances. The Finale starts darkly in the key of A minor, but eventually the tonic key of the symphony, F major, wins out, but not without multiple stormy passages in minor keys along the way. The symphony ends in glorious F major, with the brass fanfares from the first movement returning. It was a memorable ending for this Severance Hall season.