It’s been 33 years since The Cleveland Orchestra last played in Prague. That was at the Prague Spring festival under the baton of Christoph von Dohnányi, who once famously complained, “We give a great concert and George Szell gets a good review.” It was Szell who molded the orchestra into a world-class ensemble during his 24 years as music director, and it still bears his imprint. Austrian conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who has been at the helm since 2002, has made his mark as well, as he showed with deft handling of an all-Richard Strauss program at the Dvořák’s Prague festival.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra in the Rudolfinum
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

The opening work, the symphonic poem Macbeth, took the orchestra away from two of its chief strengths – lush, golden strings and careful attention to detail, which are subsumed in this piece by all the thunder and clatter. The characters’ voices were clear and a brisk tempo added a layer of tension. But the music never really caught fire, hovering in an uneasy balance between Welser-Möst’s typically light, refined style and the demands of a psychodrama. In effect, it was a good warm-up with a lot of punch but not much beneath the noise.

Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks brought the orchestra back to form, with plenty of opportunity for the strings to shimmer and details to emerge, in particular from the horn and clarinet playing the title character’s themes. Welser-Möst found a groove not only in the rhythms, but in the impish quality he lent the trickster and playful lilt of his antics. There were nicely drawn contrasts between the deep brass and high, almost shrill woodwinds, and remarkable turns of mood, with the conductor shifting in an instant from dark foreboding to bright amusement. Most of the piece was like that, a headlong rush that barely gave the music a chance to breathe. But the lively treatment swept up the audience, which responded with hearty applause.

With a concluding suite from Der Rosenkavalier that he himself arranged, Welser-Möst seemed to finally be in his element, crafting an elegant, nuanced sound in which you could almost hear the champagne flutes clinking. Glorious waltzes are a given in this piece, but they were exceptional in Welser-Möst’s hands, light and flowing, yet somehow filled with body. He caressed the melodies in the opening movement, gave them sparkle in a fast-paced second movement and expanded them in the third, where they unfolded and cascaded in gentle waves. Other elements in the opera were not neglected – notes of poignancy, nostalgia, humor and sadness simmered underneath – but there was a magical quality to the melodies that was impossible to resist.

The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst in the Rudolfinum
© Dvořák's Prague | Petra Hajská

If the evening was uneven, it nonetheless confirmed The Cleveland Orchestra’s consistent ranking among the very best in the US and its reputation as “the most European” of American orchestras. Its Old World roots are still there – the formality, discipline, punctilious quality in the playing and sense of drawing on a long, deep tradition. Yet the freshness, enthusiasm and spirit of adventure that characterizes the American style of performance is also very strong, adding a New World burnish and character. It’s a distinctive admixture that by now is part of the orchestra’s DNA.

And ultimately there’s no escaping Szell who, before he emigrated to the US, spent eight years as music director of the New German Theater (now the Prague State Opera) across town – and acknowledged Richard Strauss as an important mentor. A great concert, gentlemen, regardless who was actually conducting.