Music Director Franz Welser-Möst is back in town to lead the next three weeks of Cleveland Orchestra concerts, the first program of which took us into the heart of Central Europe. Traversing a century and a half of musical history, the evening started with an early work of Mozart, leading to Schoenberg’s rigorous serialism by way of a particularly indulgent example of Strauss’ opulent Romanticism. A diverse body of work, to be sure, but not without some thoughtful connections between the pieces.

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

Mozart’s Divertimento no. 2 in D major came from the pen of a precocious 16-year-old. It’s lighter fare as the title suggests, though in six movements spanning half an hour, it was conceived on a much larger scale than his symphonies from the same period. Textures were light and airy, with the orchestra operating as a precision instrument, giving the piece the same loving attention to detail as the weightier works.

A silvery flute passage from Joshua Smith was quite charming, as was a dialogue between concertmaster David Radzynski and principal second violin Stephen Rose in the Adagio. Minuets took up much of the work’s pages, played with abandon and a fine sounding horn section in the corresponding trios. The jocular finale raised spirits in its sprightly shift in meter near the end. An enjoyable opener, if perhaps a bit overlong.

At the vanguard of the so-called Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg sought to reinvigorate the classical ideals of balance, structure and economy from Mozart’s time. Though the orchestral swelled substantially in size, the composer made remarkably economical use of the massive resources at hand, with the ensemble often sounding smaller than it was. The 1928 Variations for Orchestra was one of Schoenberg’s first major statements following the codification of his twelve-tone technique. 

Protean beginnings coalesced into rigid structure wherein the cellos made an exacting declaration of the tone row. The BACH motif, quite ingeniously derived from the row, served as a familiar signpost as it surfaced through the course of the nine variations. A waltz variation was a highlight, showing Schoenberg as ever the echt-Viennese, even amidst the abandonment of tonality. The clangorous and percussive finale was of intense effect. 

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

The animus for Schoenberg’s aesthetic was in many regards a response to what was seen as the excesses of Romanticism, an extravagance hardly better typified than by Strauss’ semi-autobiographical tone poem Ein Heldenleben which filled the balance of the evening. Exultant and heroic from the onset, searingly passionate material fluttered by, cast in bold and brassy splendor. Nonetheless, our hero (read: Strauss) was stopped in his tracks by the strident sounds of his critics depicted rather uncharitably in the winds.

The Hero’s Companion serves as the centerpiece, and includes very substantial writing for solo violin – a welcome opportunity for Cleveland audiences to get acquainted with David Radzynski, serving in his first full season as concertmaster following eight years in the Israel Philharmonic. The writing was by turns playful and tender, enhanced by Radzynski’s limber, flexible tone that sailed through the relentless technical demands.

Offstage trumpets heralded a battle scene, a fire and fury driven by brass and percussion galore. Something of a self-referential retrospective followed, wherein the composer extensively quotes himself, and the music crested to fortes that filled the hall without harshness – and moments of silence punctuated just as effectively. A withdrawal, and search for inner peace amidst the tumultuous world closed the work, but this came off as more ponderous than profound, though the stentorian brass of the final bars was quite affecting.