One of the most anticipated dates in the Cleveland autumn musical season is the opening of the Cleveland Orchestra subscription season at Severance Hall. This year’s opening was under especially happy circumstances, following the orchestra’s successful recent European tour, and, especially, with the news earlier in the week that the orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst, has extended his contract through to 2022. In various media interviews announcing the news, the orchestra’s management was quick to note that the negotiation regarding extension of Welser-Möst’s contract had begun in 2013, long before the conductor’s recent abrupt resignation as the music director of the Vienna State Opera. The new contract assures that he will be in Cleveland through the orchestra’s centennial season in 2017/18 and beyond.

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

The orchestra showed themselves in very fine form for their opener. The program was neither exotic nor astonishing – a Beethoven symphony and three familiar works by Ravel. No big name soloist, chorus, video or other distractions; just the pleasure of reveling in the orchestra itself.

Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6 in F Major, Op.68 “Pastoral” was first performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in 1922, and has been played countless times since then. Along with Mozart, Haydn and Brahms, Beethoven is in the orchestra’s foundational DNA. Yet there are always fresh insights. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony stands in stark contrast to the Fifth (They were first performed on the same four hour program!) in its programmatic context and simpler harmonic language and rhythmic content. Each of the five movements portrays a scene in the countryside surrounding Beethoven’s Vienna. The “extra” movement, depicting a thunderstorm, is inserted between the scherzo and finale, and the three movements are strung together without pause.

From the opening limpid phrase of the first movement, the hallmark of this performance was an extraordinary legato and subtle phrasing which gave it an unusual calm and the unanimity of a chamber orchestra. Welser-Möst kept the overall dynamic restrained; the orchestra’s controlled piano (and lower) dynamics made for an intimate performance. The only place where this elegantly contained interpretation seemed less successful was the third movement “Jolly gathering of country-folk,” where the jolly folk perhaps were mincing around rather than stamping out some rustic dance. The thunderstorm was appropriately threatening, leading into a lilting final movement, again with everything well thought-out. This interpretation might not satisfy everyone, but it was consistent throughout and musically satisfying. As the children’s storybook character Goldilocks might say, “It was just right.”

A common thread linking the three works by Maurice Ravel on the second half of the program is that all exist as successful, oft-played piano works: Alborada del gracioso and Valses nobles et sentimentales originated as solo piano pieces, later orchestrated by Ravel; La Valse exists in Ravel’s own transcription for two pianos. It was the piano transcription, performed by Ravel and Marcelle Heyer, for Sergei Diaghilev that caused the great impresario, who had commissioned Ravel’s composition, to reject La Valse as a choreographic work. But the piano versions of all three works are dimly pale reflections of the orchestral plumage with which Ravel enrobe them.

These were extraordinarily detailed performances, with attention to each nuance (although warmer than the icy perfection that often characterized Pierre Boulez’s performances of this music). Alborada del gracioso had big splashes of color and small gestures (the bassoon solo the sense of intoxicating exoticism). The whirling winds and strummed strings and swirls in the harp caught Ravel’s incandescent French-tinged Spanish creation. The very rapidly repeated note passages in winds and brass were models of precision.

Welser-Möst and the orchestra performed Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse without pause. The Valses nobles et sentimentales are a series of short movements emphasizing pleasurable melody and harmony, a series of elegant bonbons, each with a different character. As in Alborada del gracioso, their was fluidity of phrasing and rhythm, with each detail well-judged. The sixth waltz rose to a brilliant climax, but then suddenly became softly sparkling. The closing segment was slower, morose, ending pianissimo.

The quiet close of Valses nobles et sentimentales lends itself to the rumbling bass opening of La Valse. It is much more mercurial than Valses nobles …; there are mysterious gurglings in the bass clarinet, sudden explosions of sound, and internal intricacies that seem almost like a deconstructed Viennese waltz. (Perhaps Diaghilev’s characterization of La Valse as “not so much a ballet as a portrait of a ballet” was on the mark.) Conductor and orchestra were in synch for a wild dance, bringing opening night to a splendid conclusion with strong hopes for the rest of the season.