The Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst turned in a mixed program at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, in two senses, with repertoire spanning over three centuries and performances ranging from the sublime to the tedious.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra in Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

African-American composer George Walker’s 2012 Sinfonia no. 4, “Strands” is so titled in reference to a “rigorous intertwining of independent melodic threads.” Welser-Möst emphasized this intellectual aspect, somehow bypassing the piece’s narrative and emotional/experiential core. The deconstructed spiritual at the piece’s center seemed arbitrary, rather than a needed respite after a complex, chaotic tangle. While the orchestra’s sonic richness was fully on display, and the ending was appropriately violent, this felt like a token effort.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, the soloist in the Karol Szymanowski Violin Concerto no. 2, is a marvel. His playing was powerful, secure and expressive, despite the fact that, if the music stand he had onstage with him is any indication, this is early days for him with the piece. The mid-concerto cadenza, two and a half minutes of ferociously tumbling and immaculately tuned double stops, was worth the trip all by itself. The orchestra balanced him nicely (not always a sure thing in this hall), but there was minimal sense of detail or texture in many of the accompanying passages, all the more vexing for the soaring crispness in the full orchestra’s interludes.

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Chris Lee

I applaud the programming of 20th- and 21st--century composers, but it’s pretty obvious that Schubert is more in Welser-Möst’s – and the orchestra’s – wheelhouse. When they began the Symphony no. 9 in C major, “The Great”, it was as though the heavens had opened and rained down blessings: textures were sculpturally precise, balances were perfectly calibrated. TCO’s strings had core and sheen, and both they and the orchestra as a whole could create goosebump-raising crescendos and climaxes that lingered in the limbic system. The woodwind choir was rich and meaty; the brass had both suppleness and crunch. And a special shout-out to the timpanist, whose combination of restraint and precision was as refreshing as it is unusual.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Chris Lee

Welser-Möst found a lovely blend of the intellectual, the physical and the emotional in the first movement that boded well for the rest of the symphony (despite my dismay at realizing that he was honoring all of Schubert’s repeat signs, making the piece an hour long). And indeed, the second movement, taken at a brisk pace that recalled a drinking song, had a compelling logic in its turns from jolliness to anguish to gradual recovery. However, the third movement, supposedly a Scherzo, was so lugubrious as to eventually became tedious, the more so because at frequent intervals Welser-Möst made some very odd interpretive choices, such as including the kind of Viennese lilt more commonly associated with Strauss waltzes, breaking whatever momentum he had accumulated. And while the finale once again realized the promise of the first movement, with tensely transparent pianissimo textures and long accumulations of energy that evoked yearning toward sunlight, the totality of the symphony didn’t quite recover from the Scherzo’s drop in energy.