It is rare that a reviewer has the opportunity to hear two performances of the same repertoire in a single series of performances, but I had that opportunity this weekend in The Cleveland Orchestra’s lead-up to its October European tour. In three concerts, Thursday through Saturday, five works by Olivier Messiaen, Richard Strauss and Giuseppe Verdi were selected and rearranged each night in slightly different order, with only one work repeated on all three concerts. That was Olivier Messiaen’s colorful Couleurs de la cité céleste.

The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni | FWM
The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni | FWM

I reviewed the orchestra’s first-ever performance of Couleurs de la cité céleste on Thursday. At that concert, Cleveland Orchestra pianist and principal keyboard player Joela Jones gave a polished performance of the jagged birdsong solos incorporated throughout the 20-minute work. The Friday performance was even more cohesive, alternately lively and menacing. The work is a compendium of Messiaen’s mature style and religious devotion, with not just virtuosic percussion birdcalls, but glorious, massive brass harmonizations of Gregorian chants in complicated Indian rhythms precisely rendered. Apocalyptic grandeur was always present. The blend of the brass and three clarinets was more precise. This, and the performance of Messiaen’s Chronochromie that opened the concert, were perfect examples of The Cleveland Orchestra’s legendary skill at making the most thorny contemporary music sound easy.

Messiaen’s Chronochromie, which opened this program, had its first complete American performance in 1967 with The Cleveland Orchestra, and has recently become something of a “calling card” piece for the orchestra, with performances conducted by Franz Welser-Möst in May and July 2015. Couleurs de la cité céleste is religious in its context; Chronochromie is more abstract, although birdsong abounds in it as well. The form of the work is modeled on Greek poetry and mathematical formulas, with the interplay of time (chronos) and color (chroma). It is not necessary to understand Messiaen’s theoretical elements, which are unrecognizable to the ears of most listeners. It is better to just listen for the variety of musical colors and textures as the work proceeds. Quite striking was the view of Welser-Möst calmly conducting measures of four beats, while there was very well-organized chaos coming from the performers. The percussion section was astonishing in several solo passages of birdsong. (As on Thursday night, Joela Jones showed her versatility in Chronochromie playing as a member of the percussion section on the important keyed glockenspiel part.) The most remarkable achievement in Chronochromie was the penultimate section, the “Épôde,” for 18 solo strings (violins, violas, cellos) each playing its own birdsong. The episode continues with unvarying texture for four minutes. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all the notes, but it was breathtakingly impressive. The work closes with a “Coda” including both moments of tension and repose, ultimately with massive fortissimo chords in the full orchestra.

After intermission, traditional tonality reigned for the rest of the program, two movements from Giuseppe Verdi’s Quattro pezzi sacri (Four Sacred Pieces) for mixed chorus and orchestra. They are very late works, begun in 1889, after Otello and completed in 1897, after Falstaff. The sacred text aside, the music of the Stabat Mater and Te Deum performed here is reminiscent of Verdi’s Requiem, with majestic melodies and dramatic orchestrations. The Stabat Mater, depicting Mary, the mother of Jesus at the Cross, has many sudden, vivid contrasts of dynamics, from the softest phrases to huge climaxes in the space of a few notes. The choral music moves between lamentation and sweetness. The text is set syllabically, with almost no text repetition. The Te Deum opens a cappella with the first phrase of the Gregorian Te Deum chant, softly. As in the Stabat Mater, the text is mostly word by word, until the exultant Sanctus for full orchestra and chorus. The work ends with a feeling of quiet uncertainty, despite the reassurance of the Latin text, “O Lord, I have trusted you; never let me be confused”.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus sang with well-blended sound and precise diction, and, for the most part, with security, although there were a few entrances in the Te Deum that seemed a little ragged, and several times the upper reaches of the sopranos sagged slightly in pitch. An unnamed soprano soloist from the chorus sang effectively in the closing passage. The Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst captured all the theatrical grandeur of Verdi’s accompaniment and were attuned to the many musical contrasts along the way.