This weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts saw the second of a pair of programs led by Franz Welser-Möst before he takes the orchestra on an extensive tour of China. While it may count as a disappointment to Clevelanders that no concerts are thus scheduled on home turf until late April, it was quite a magnificent send-off – and Chinese audiences have much to look forward to in the coming weeks. Welser-Möst opened the evening with Schubert’s Symphony no. 4 in C minor, the first entry in his multi-season exploration of the Schubert symphonies. Rumbling timpani made for a declamatory opening, the introduction’s expressive weight giving credence to epithet Tragic which the 19-year-old composer self-applied. The Allegro vivace took flight with limpid, flexible playing in the strings building gravitas.

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

The second movement Andante was of a lyricism that could only come from the pen of a composer with hundreds of Lieder to his name. Such songfulness first appeared in the strings and was echoed by the winds with oboist Frank Rosenwein’s contributions especially worthy of mention. Welser-Möst’s tempo was a notch too brisk, yet he still brought forth the repose of one of Schubert’s loveliest creations. A driving energy propelled the ensuing minuet, contrasted by the graceful abandon of the trio. The finale was given a vigorous reading, with its colorful key changes landing in the sunny major, the tragic beginnings seemingly long forgotten.

After opening with a work from the First Viennese School, matters shifted to the Second in music of Webern (incidentally, the previous week’s program was centered on a leading voice of the so-called Third Viennese School, Bernd Richard Deutsch). It was noted in the program books that when The Cleveland Orchestra first performed the Six Pieces for Orchestra under George Szell in 1959, the conductor programmed it both before and after intermission, affording the audience a second exposure to a daunting work. Such a luxury wasn’t given at present, yet the gripping impact with which Welser-Möst and the orchestra delivered all but obviated the necessity. Originally composed in 1909, Welser-Möst opted for the 1928 revision for a slimmer though still considerable ensemble – at the work’s core is an uneasy tension between the terse, aphoristic statements and the vastness of the forces for which it is scored.

In Webern’s scoring, the orchestra rarely operates as a unified whole, but instead gestures are passed from one instrument to another in an exacting pointillism. The opening Langsam was utterly unnerving, an atmosphere that pervaded along with a razor-sharp precision. A moment of lyricism was to be had in the third selection by way of a finely played viola solo. What followed was the most extended piece; with beginnings of barely audible tremors in the tam-tam, the percussion led to an outburst of ferocious power in this unrelenting funeral march. The final piece offered only an inconclusive ending, bathed in the ethereal sounds of the celesta.

The meat of the program came after intermission in Strauss’ autobiographical tone poem Ein Heldenleben. Conceived in six interconnected sections, the work is arguably structured as an extended sonata form; a case was certainly made for such well-considered architecture under Welser-Möst’s astute guidance. A kinetic statement of the hero theme made for bold beginnings; brimming with passion and vigor, the hero in question was clearly destined for greatness. Thorny woodwinds and a bumbling tuba depicted “The Hero’s Adversaries” – that is, the music critics – as carping and thoroughly disagreeable. No further comment. Lush and lovely music marked “The Hero’s Companion”, though not without a certain capriciousness as captured through the extended passagework of concertmaster Peter Otto.

“The Hero’s Battlefield” is surely one of the cinematically detailed battle scenes in the literature. Offstage brass added a spatial dimension, and the limits of orchestral virtuosity were pushed as the music teetered on the precipice of bombast without falling over. In “The Hero’s Works of Peace”, Strauss revealed unequivocally that he himself was the eponymous hero by weaving in a dizzying retrospective of his already considerable body of work, quoting himself dozens of times. The final section was of peaceful withdrawal, with the hero transcending the physical world such that only his music persisted. Otto offered again some wonderfully lyrical playing. At the end Strauss allotted himself one final indulgence in interpolating the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra, and matters built to a mighty brass chorale. With playing like this, the orchestra will be sorely missed while on tour.