“It will have an enormous amount of detail... be chamber-music-like and very lyrical,” promised Music Director Franz Welser-Möst ahead of the first of the Cleveland Orchestra’s two Brahms-centric Proms. He was spot-on in his prediction: even in the notoriously unhelpful acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, this was some of the clearest and technically best Brahms I have heard. It was also among the finest musically, making a very strong case indeed for Welser-Möst’s cerebral, historically-driven Brahms.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Cleveland Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The Academic Festival Overture, a “boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs”, as the composer described it, carried all the good humour and energy as is demanded by tunes such as the Fuchslied (the central tune in 2/4 led at first by bassoons). This song would be brought out during a particular initiation ceremony in which senior students attempt to set fire to freshers’ hair before extinguishing with beer. From the outset, this performance sparkled with life, largely thanks to the extraordinary clarity of sound which the Clevelanders produced. Every semiquaver was heard, however peripheral in an accompanying role, and the leading lines were always treated with the necessary irreverence or pomposity to make for an enormously entertaining concert opener. The only regret was that, from my seat at least, the climactic cymbal clashes sounded oddly feeble and restrained.

Sandwiched between the evening’s two Brahms works was Jörg Widmann’s Flûte en suite of 2011. The 8-movement work exploits the various colours of the flute to an impressive extent, with sporadic touches of flutter-tonguing and vocalising adding ornamentation to the more conventional (and particularly beautiful) sounds of the instrument as played by the orchestra’s principal, Joshua Smith. Like the Academic, this was light hearted and often tongue-in-cheek. There were widespread chuckles throughout the hall when, near the end, Bach’s famous suite for flute and strings finally erupted, with a bouncy ‘oom-pah’ accompaniment. At the other end of the piece, the inclusion of an Allemande for bass, alto, regular and piccolo flutes was a shrewd move in celebrating the instrument’s capabilities.

Smith’s playing was extraordinarily fine in technical facility and engagement with both orchestra and audience. When required, he would pull off the most daring, virtuosic turns with ease, and in the stiller passages hold the hall in a memorably beautiful moment. It was just as remarkable to see him return to the stage for the second half of the concert. This was a striking performance of a piece which surely deserves wider dissemination. I was pleased to hear that it made it into the television broadcast of this concert, in a season when the BBC have been heavily criticised for airbrushing new music out from their programmes.

Joshua Smith performs the UK premiere of Jörg Widmann’s <i>Flûte en suite</i> © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Joshua Smith performs the UK premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Flûte en suite
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

In stark contrast, the opening of Brahms’ First Symphony was full of darkness and angst-ridden tension, neatly paving the way for the rest of the movement. The Allegro immediately snapped into a brisk, light and incisive stride which added a certain element of dance to the music. It was a pity that the repeat was omitted – this might have reinforced the tension neatly – but the development nonetheless brought us a good degree of turmoil. Welser-Möst did well to push the music onwards with a rolling sense of forward momentum, making for compelling listening.

The Andante was no mere bucolic interlude, but slotted into the greater symphonic argument perfectly with its sense of yearning, especially with the very fine oboe solos and meltingly lovely exchanges between solo horn and concertmaster. The same was true of the third movement, a pleasingly airy Allegretto in which good detail in accompanying triplets added subtle glimpse of resolution.

The finale was attacked without pause, and began with daringly soft pizzicato. Richard King’s horn solo was carried off with great beauty of tone and impressive shape. Welser-Möst did not linger on this with any particular sentiment, nor on the subsequent string exposition, but allowed the Beethovian aspects of the music to emerge in his perpetually clean textures. It was only in a much later reappearance of this tune that his beat opened up from a tight-gripped 4/4 to a far more expansive 1- or 2-in-a-bar, signalling a more fluid and cleverly highlighted form of the same tune. The coda was reached at the peak of a glowing ascent, full of excitement and spark. There was no big pullback for the brass chorale, in keeping with the rest of this measured, intelligent Brahms, and the final pages made for a thrilling close.

There was little which could have added much to the evening. An encore of Johann Strauss II proved the exception, bringing enormous character and dashing joie de vivre to a romping Csárdás from his opera Ritter Pasman. It was a fabulous end to the concert.

****1