After a three-performance return of their acclaimed production of Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen last week, The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th anniversary season officially opened this weekend with a stunning program comprised of two landmark works, Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, in a version by conductor Franz Welser-Möst for full string orchestra, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Welser-Möst and TCO again proved their peerless mastery of these technically and musically difficult masterpieces.

Franz Welser-Möst © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Beethoven’s music will be prominent during this season, with a full symphony cycle, but Welser-Möst began with one of the composer thorniest late works, the Op.132 string quartet. In his version, for about 60 players, the double bass section mostly doubles the cello part an octave lower. Only an orchestra with the precision of sound and phrasing of TCO would be able to carry off this feat. The result was effective, but the larger ensemble smoothed out the rough edges of Beethoven’s musical ideas, resulting in a loss of the “weirdness” and musical searching of the starker string quartet texture. The quartet explores enigmatic and mercurial musical themes and harmonic structures, particularly in its first movement.

The lengthy central movement, the “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity”, was autumnal in its beauty, but interspersed with cheery passages seemingly modeled after Handel’s music. The gorgeous orchestral texture was plush, which robbed the music of the plainness of its quartet incarnation, but at times it did remind me, especially at the end of the movement, of the textures in Strauss’ late string orchestra masterpiece Metamorphosen.

After a short “recitative-ish” fourth movement, with the violin solo stylishly played by concertmaster William Preucil, the finale was a dramatic aria for the ensemble: lyric and romantic, but composed as if Beethoven was searching for a musical path into the future. This performance was worthy of Beethoven’s enigma.

The Rite of Spring has been baked into the musical DNA of The Cleveland Orchestra since Pierre Boulez’s groundbreaking performances in the late 1960s. It has become a signature piece for TCO ever since. The technical and rhythmic challenges were conquered long ago. This weekend’s reading built on a firm understanding of The Rite to focus on phrasing and the relationship of the music to Stravinsky’s dramatic scenario. But where Boulez’s performances were icily perfect, Welser-Möst led a performance of ferocious impact, while maintaining clarity. Numerous details normally unheard were illuminated, and the musical line had a subtle flexibility seemingly at odds – but yet sounding fresh and natural – with Stravinsky’s motoric pulse.

This was an intense performance, from the softest entrances and melodies to the all-out bass drum pounding later in the piece. The brass and wind players especially were on top form. The Rite of Spring is a work that must be heard live; no recording can give the physical effect of the masses of orchestral sound. And although it is a work nowadays taken up sometimes even by student orchestras, The Cleveland Orchestra gave it a performance this weekend that can stand up among the best, even with their own illustrious past.

Although standing ovations are too common, the spontaneous ovation for this performance, and its length and dynamic level were unusually enthusiastic, leading to the unusual performance of an encore: a beautifully serene excerpt from the Good Friday Music from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. As Welser-Möst stated from the stage, it was “a wonderful piece for a wonderful audience”.