Despite recent controversy, The Cleveland Orchestra's latest concert, guest-conducted by modern music specialist Ingo Metzmacher, was a huge success. Christian Tetzlaff was a poetic soloist in a surpassingly beautiful performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. Anton Webern’s Passacaglia and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande – both early works – filled out the program.

Ingo Metzmacher
© Kai Beinert

Webern considered his Passacaglia, composed in 1908 when he was 25 and still Schoenberg’s student, his first work worthy of an opus number. It was written before Webern adopted a severe version of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. The Passacaglia remains on the fringes of tonality, with ever-changing tonal centers too frequent to assign to a particular key. The form is a Baroque passacaglia, in which a theme in the bass is repeated, with variations of increasing complexity above. Webern starts with pianissimo pizzicato theme in the low strings, but quickly moves it to other places in the orchestra, with strikingly original development. Metzmacher’s reading was detailed, with individual strands of melody brought out among the constantly shifting harmonies.

The true masterpiece of this program (and the highlight of the concert) was Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto written in 1935 to a commission from American violinist Louis Krasner. Berg took a break from writing Lulu to compose the concerto, but died both before the concerto’s première and before completing his opera.

The concerto inhabits the same sound world as Lulu; indeed, many passages of the concerto could be inserted into the opera, or have text added, and would sound right at home. Berg adapted Schoenberg’s notorious twelve-tone compositional method to his own more Romantic ends, constructing his tone rows to replicate aspects of tonal harmony. There is a sensuous saxophone, a folk song, and a Bach chorale played by a quartet of solo clarinets during the course of the two movements. The resulting sound is lush and melodic in an astringent manner. From the magical ascending open fourths at the beginning of the concerto, Tetzlaff demonstrated his complete mastery of the concerto's virtuosity and lyricism. The solo part is often subsumed in the orchestral texture, but Tetzlaff and Metzmacher had worked out the details of where the emphasis should be; these accumulated to an exquisite performance with forward movement and sensitive phrasing. 

Tetzlaff memorialized the members of the Pittsburgh synagogue murdered during services on Saturday in a serene encore, the Largo from Bach’s solo Violin Sonata no. 3 in C major, BWV 1005.”

Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande (1902-03) inhabits a completely different musical space than Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera of the same name. Debussy’s music is ineffable; Schoenberg’s doomed lovers are presented in turgid late-Romantic Teutonic splendor. It was easy to follow the dramatic progress of the symphonic poem with a useful programmatic outline in the printed program book. Very few moments are soft and mysterious. Schoenberg uses a huge orchestra, and the prevailing dynamic is loud and louder. Metzmacher and TCO gave it their all, but by the end of the work’s 45 minutes, the music seemed more like an assault than a tragic love affair.