For the first three weeks of this subscription season, The Cleveland Orchestra has been giving local trial runs of the works that will be the repertoire of their upcoming two-and-a-half week European tour. This week’s program consisted of a “Chinese menu” of five works by Olivier Messiaen, Richard Strauss and Giuseppe Verdi, arranged in various combinations over three evenings’ performances.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni
The two works by Messiaen on Thursday’s program represent the composer in both his formative years of the early 1930s and at his full maturity in the 1960s. L’Ascension (Quatre méditations symphoniques) was completed in 1933, when Messiaen was 25. In 1934 Messiaen made a version of L’Ascension for solo organ, substituting a completely different third movement. The orchestral version shows Messiaen still very much under the influence of Debussy and Messiaen’s teacher Paul Dukas. The music is mostly slow-moving and chorale-like. The first movement, “Majesty of Christ Asking for Glory from His Father” is scored for wind instruments only, although brass is predominant. Franz Wesler-Möst chose a very stately tempo, creating phrases almost too long for the orchestra to maintain. The exposed trumpet melody was a ragged in several places. “Serene Alleluias of a Soul Desiring Heaven” is based on a jagged melody heard first in unison, later appearing in various guises, including in the winds over slithering string chords. At the end the theme reappears ecstatically over string trills and tremolos. The lively third movement “Alleluia on a Trumpet, Alleluia on the Cymbals” was a collage of post-impressionist color and swirling dance-like rhythms. It was in the second and third movements that this performance coalesced. The fourth movement, “Prayer of Christ Ascending to His Father”, was another slow chorale scored this time for strings, with the emphasis on the first violins, with fewer second violins, four violas and just two cellos. The long melody stayed in mid-range of the instruments and was more a meditation that is never really developed. The sound was arresting and in complete unity.

If Messiaen’s music can be believed, the celestial city predicted in the Bible’s Book of Revelation is a raucous place full of glittering light and glorious birdsongs. Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City). Curiously, this was the first time that The Cleveland Orchestra had performed the work, especially considering the ensemble’s long association with Pierre Boulez, who conducted many of Messiaen’s works in Cleveland.

Welser-Möst and the unusual group of instruments, including trombones, trumpets, three clarinets, an array of pitched percussion and gongs, plus a piano soloist, gave a brilliant performance. The orchestra’s principal keyboard player Joela Jones attacked the difficult solo part with steel-fingered virtuosity worthy of the work’s first soloist, Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s student and second wife. Although there are numerous brief solo passages throughout the work, the piano is largely treated as part of the ensemble, combining with textures of the gamelan-sounding xylophone, xylorimba, and marimba, chimes and tuned gongs.

The brass playing in L’Ascension may not have been perfect, but here there was glory. Trombones were menacing in their apocalyptic grandeur. Clarinets, seated downstage left, rarely play alone; they fill in the harmonic frequencies of the brass and add warmth to the sound. Cleveland may have waited for 52 years to hear Couleurs de la cité céleste, but it was worth the wait! 

After intermission, the hard working Joela Jones returned to play perhaps the most famous of all full-organ C major chords, in the introduction to Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra, based on the eponymous work by Friedrich Nietzsche. When Strauss composed his tone poem in 1896, the book was only a decade old, and its very dense prose is still a matter of discussion for scholars. Strauss treats the character of Zoroaster (i.e., Zarathustra), the founder of an ancient Persian religion, as a Romantic hero on the road to enlightenment. The Cleveland Orchestra program booklet provided an outline of the musical work, including quotations from Nietzsche’s book.

Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra gave a fluent performance, handily dealing with Strauss’s chromaticism and complex textures. Themes return repeatedly through the work. Especially impressive was the complicated fugue mid-way through. Concertmaster William Preucil and English horn Robert Walters were soloists in the odd Viennese waltz that Strauss composed to depict Zarathustra’s ecstatic dance. Franz Welser-Möst again proved himself to be a memorable Strauss conductor.

There was an encore, Igor Stravinsky’s Fireworks, in a sparkling performance worthy of its title.