Of the ten or so orchestras I’ve listened to during this year’s Proms (from the RLPO to the Hallé, the Budapest Festival Orchestra to the Berliner Philharmoniker), the Cleveland Orchestra’s sound was perhaps the most polished, sophisticated (especially the silky strings) and disciplined of all. It is clear that Franz Welser-Möst has been cultivating this distinct sound during his 12-year directorship (I imagine the sound particularly suits the acoustics of their home, Severance Hall, which Welser-Möst has compared to the Vienna Musikverein), and that the orchestra is at one with his direction. However, in the vastness of the Royal Albert Hall, at times their playing felt too delicate and a little muted, especially in Brahms’s Second Symphony.  

In their second prom, Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra again framed a UK première of Jörg Widmann’s recent work with an overture and symphony by Brahms. Their choice of preceding Widmann’s ambitious and dark work Teufel Amor with Brahms’s Tragic Overture worked well. Composed between his second and third symphonies, the dark and turbulent overture in D minor takes an unconventional sonata form where the extended transitions play an important role. The orchestra plunged into the drama with spirit and highlighted the change of moods with a variety of shades and colours. The serenity they brought in the slow development section was particularly moving, with fine contributions from the horns. The initial dramatic subject returns in the coda section and the music ends as turbulently as it began. Overall, Welser-Möst brought out the urgency of the musical drama without driving the orchestra too hard.

Indeed, this absence of drive is a characteristic of Welser-Möst’s conducting. He maintains a tight grip on the orchestra, controlling the balance, colour and phrasing which results in outstanding precision in the playing. But in terms of tempo and rhythm he is very rigorous and often he seems reluctant to let go of his reins so that sometimes there is a lack of fluidity. Although this approach suited the tightly-constructed Tragic Oveture, it worked less well in Brahms’s sunnier and more lyrical Second Symphony.

Of course, there was little to fault in the classy playing by the Cleveland Orchestra, but Welser-Möst’s interpretation was often too sachlich and controlled especially in the lyrical moments. The opening horn call in the first movement sounded restrained and the cellos weren’t allowed to sing espressivo in their lyrical second theme. If that had been in anticipation of a gradual build-up to the climax, I would have been convinced but apart from a few sudden outbursts (such as in the development section), it stayed restrained. The solemn second movement, also full of controlled beauty, worked better – the melancholic cello theme was beautifully shaped and the wind playing was fine too, with eloquent solos by the flute and clarinet. In the third movement, Welser-Möst’s approach was elegant but too serious – there is a more light-hearted rustic dance element in the music which went unexplored (I also felt the same in their encore of Hungarian Dance no. 1). He continued attaca into the final movement which was taken at a swift pace. The orchestra was finally allowed to play full blast in the triumphant D major climax (with bright and articulate brass playing), although it felt a little abrupt probably because there wasn’t enough of a build-up to the finale.

To place Widmann’s 30-minute symphonic poem Teufel Amor (Devil Cupid) in between the two Brahms works was bold programming, and it may have kept some of the more conservative audience away, but Brahms and Widmann went well together. According to Welser-Möst, Brahms and Widmann are both composers “who are not afraid of the history before them…. They don’t have the pressure to be new constantly and have their own voice, but stand on the tradition of music history”.

Teufel Amor brought out the best in the partnership of Welser-Möst and the orchestra. The title is taken from a fragment of a poem by Schiller which for Widmann captured the “heaven and hell, pleasure and pain, paradise and snake-pit” of love. The work explores these two conflicting sides of love – the diabolical and the ecstatic – in colourful and virtuosic ways. It begins in the lowest register of the orchestra (representing hell) and when the higher instruments (woodwind and later violins) enter, they play in the uppermost register and the two groups fight or interrupt each other in short outbursts. There are influences from past composers, notably Mahler and Schoenberg in the slow and introspective string-led section which becomes increasingly violent with interventions by the percussion and turns into a sort of Totentanz. Near the end, one can hear parodic quotes of romantic Mahler and Richard Strauss, but at the end the devil seem to prevail. Widmann’s orchestration is detailed and colourful and Welser-Möst and the orchestra gave a totally committed performance not only with precision but with brilliance and flair.