Franz Welser-Möst is back in Cleveland for the final two subscription concerts of the season, the first of which juxtaposed works of Bartók and Schubert. An odd coupling at first glance, both works were products of the final year of their respective composers’ life (and both first performed posthumously), and invoke that ineffable autumnal quality of a valedictory late style. Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto occupies an entirely different sound world than his first two percussive and virtuosic entries in the medium. Familiar guest Mitsuko Uchida served as soloist, entering with a theme that boasted a classical elegance, perhaps more akin to Mozart than Bartók. A more playful subject soon animated matters, yet the mood never strayed far from general restraint – piquant dissonances added splashes of color without becoming untamed. Uchida’s reading may not have been note-perfect, but it was the uniquely individual character of her playing that made the lasting impression. Soloist and orchestra operated as seasoned collaborators, the dividends of their long-term relationship paying off handsomely.

Franz Welser-Möst, Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni for The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni for The Cleveland Orchestra

The central Andante religioso opened in the gentle beauty of the strings, an homage to Beethoven’s Heilige Dankgesang. Uchida’s playing was of the utmost purity and clarity, though sharply angular writing took over in a contrasting section. Top-drawer playing from the woodwinds conveyed a detailed series of birdcalls as per the composer’s idiosyncratic “night music” and double octaves in the piano thundered by before a return of the religioso theme. The finale was most patently Bartók in its reliance on dance and folk inflections, as if the composer had momentarily left behind his end-of-life musings. A fugue displayed Uchida’s intricate, nuanced pianism, and in spite of the concerto’s gentle beginnings, an energetic gesture brought it to a frenetic close.

Thursday marked Uchida’s milestone 100th appearance with the orchestra. Following a prolonged ovation, Welser-Möst offered some heartfelt words about her unequaled contributions, and presented her with a framed copy of the present program situated alongside the program from her Cleveland Orchestra debut in 1990. Uchida herself took to the microphone to express that every performance counted as nothing less than “a complete privilege to play with this glorious orchestra”.

Franz Welser-Möst, Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni for The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni for The Cleveland Orchestra

Schubert’s Mass no. 6 in E flat major called upon the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus along with a quintet of vocal soloists, though scoring for the latter was somewhat sparing. A mellow brass section gave the opening Kyrie an amber warmth, further heightened by the heavenly lushness of the chorus. Prepared by Lisa Wong, the chorus sang nearly without respite for the work’s hour long duration – easily the star of the show. Exultant vigor marked the extensive Gloria, in due course giving way to an exacting fugue of singular grandeur, surely looking towards the late choral writing of Beethoven as inspiration (Schubert had served as torchbearer at the elder composer’s funeral the year before, held at the same church where this mass would be premiered). A particularly striking moment came in the solemn severity of Domine Deus, buttressed by the trombones, and swiftly countered by the angelic serenity of miserere nobis as a quintessentially Schubertian understatement. Cum sancto Spiritu brought forth further contrapuntal textures and breathless melismas, expertly navigated.

A pleasing unity made for the arresting beginnings of the Credo, with the central Et incarnatus a highlight, conceived almost as a Lied within the mass given the composer’s endless gift for melody. Tenors Werner Güra and Matthew Plenk, joined by soprano Martina Janková, took the spotlight here with their voices blending beautifully. The Sanctus said much in its short duration with startling, forward-thinking harmonic shifts. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and bass-baritone Dashon Burton combined forces with Janková and Güra in the Benedictus, the intimacy of this equally-matched quartet contrasted by the grandiosity of chorus and orchestra. The concluding Agnus Dei was dark and foreboding, almost menacing, until the gentle lyricism of Dona nobis pacem, aided by the solo quartet. A figure in the final bars reached heavenward, ultimately eschewing a glorious close for the inward contemplation of this musical sunset.

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