Franz Welser-Möst has a penchant for programming standard orchestral works in unusual juxtapositions. Such was the case at this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert, with Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 in F major followed after intermission by all three of Ottorino Respighi’s “Roman trilogy”. If there was a connecting theme between the two segments of this oddly proportioned concert, it was not apparent.

Franz Welser-Möst © Carl Juste
Franz Welser-Möst
© Carl Juste

In the Beethoven, Welser-Möst’s tempi were straightforward, without extremes. He brought out the contrasts of dynamics among the various orchestral groups. In the first movement recapitulation the blend of the winds was subtle; the solo clarinet emerged from the ensemble, then retreated. The second movement was jaunty and graceful in equal parts. The minuet was relaxed, and the horn duet in the trio was beautifully matched. In the last movement, fanfares were never far away, from the pianissimo violin figures in the introduction to the rousing finale. Beethoven symphonies are the bread-and-butter of symphony orchestras. Although perhaps this performance did not offer any particularly new insights, it was balanced and elegant.

Welser-Möst treated Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome, and Pines of Rome as if it were a three-movement symphony, with the connected sections within each played without pause. This was a very concentrated dose of Respighian sonic splendor; it was also one of the most oppressively loud concerts in recent memory, with every inch of stage filled, plus additional antiphonal brass in the balcony in Roman Festivals and Pines of Rome.

Roman Festivals was the last of the symphonic poems to be composed. It is also the most raucous and even comparatively dissonant at times. The four sections move across historical periods from the gladiators and Christian martyrs of “Games at the Circus Maximus,” to a religious pilgrimage to the summit of Monte Mario, with Gregorian chant forming the basis of much of movement, to an autumn wine festival, to a carnival at Epiphany. The third section, “October Festival,” with its sunny Italian melody and charming mandolin, had a quintessentially Italian sound. The last section, “Epiphany,” was phantasmagorical and chaotic, as if we were moving from one part of the carnival to another, with the sounds merging into each other as we moved. Everything was at full tilt, and Respighi did not leave much room for subtlety. Here and elsewhere in the other two Respighi works there were many opportunities for the orchestra’s principals to shine.

The many fountains in Rome descended from a massive system of aqueducts that brought water to the city. Later, aristocrats decorated the endpoints of the system with allegorical sculptures from religion and mythology. Respighi’s sound portraits feature several of the most famous fountains at different times of day. “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn” is dreamy and relaxed. “The Triton Fountain in the Morning” has blasts of horns above trills in the orchestra and glistening textures. “The Trevi Fountain at Midday” is a procession that eventually vanishes, leaving a memory of distant trumpet fanfares. “The Fountain of Villa Medici at Sunset” is serene, with prominent solos for flute and English horn.

Pines of Rome focused on Rome’s trees as silent witnesses to the city’s history. Welser-Möst wrung out of it every bit of Technicolor splendor. “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” is a swirling dance. “Pines Near a Catacomb” is somber with a chant-like melody and an exquisite trumpet solo. The texture builds a litany-like repeated phrase to a climax, then the texture thins and fades away. “The Pines of the Janiculum” begins with solo piano arpeggios introducing a long, lyrical clarinet solo. This serene scene ends with a pre-recorded song of a nightingale as the sun sets. The balance of the orchestral sound fading into the recording was perfectly judged. “The Pines of the Appian Way” is surely the most brilliant piece of movie music ever not written for a movie! Dozens of film composers have stolen Respighi’s ideas to depict armies on the march. The distant rhythm of trudging footsteps is developed, with a long crescendo and modulations to ever more thrilling keys along the way. The low pedal notes of the Severance Hall organ underpinned the orchestral apparatus. By the end, four trumpets and two trombones in the balcony were adding their fanfares. Respighi knew how to manipulate his audience and build a climax. At the end, who wouldn’t be moved to stand up and cheer? Most of the Severance Hall audience did. Nonetheless, there is no need to hear the Respighi triptych in toto again for a long time.

***11