The two works on this week's Cleveland Orchestra concert both had elements of farewell. Jörg Widmann's Trauermarsch (Funeral March) is a piano concerto in all but title, based on musical patterns of great 19th-century funeral marches; and Anton Bruckner's Symphony no. 7 in E major contains Bruckner's memorial upon the death of his idol Richard Wagner. The performances were transporting – Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra at their most virtuosic and majestic.

Yefim Bronfman © Oded Antman
Yefim Bronfman
© Oded Antman

Widmann's 25-minute Trauermarsch originated as a joint commission by the Berliner Philharmoniker, the San Francisco Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Yefim Bronfman was the soloist in the Berlin and San Francisco performances, and repeated his tour de force performance in Cleveland. The Toronto première is yet to come. 

The musical material is based on the motif of a descending interval, first heard softly in the unaccompanied solo piano, then accompanied by growling low strings, and settling into a typical funeral march slow duple meter, with heavily accented downbeats. The solo piano plays constantly through the whole work, sometimes subsumed into the texture of the vast orchestra, which includes a huge percussion section. The texture thickens, with a multitude of arresting colors, and the tempo accelerates. Eventually the sturdy rhythm gives way to a phantasmagorical development of the material. The piano becomes ever more strident and desperate, eventually including full-hand and forearm clusters from one end of the piano to the other. Much of the piano music lies high on the keyboard, with a chiming, bell-like effect, but, combined with the percussion, in shimmering, mysterious effects.

Toward the end of the work, there is a brief, shockingly tonal melodic passage in the piano, followed by a short tumultuous section for orchestra and piano like an romantic piano concerto gone berserk. Then, just as quickly, the music melts away to a conclusion reminiscent of the opening music.

Bronfman, Welser-Möst and orchestra received a long and vocal response from the audience – far greater than one might usually expect in response to a challenging modern work. Widmann has provided a new concerto that should receive many more performances and be taken up by more soloists willing to spend the time to learn its intricacies.

Welser-Möst treats Bruckner's symphonies with religious intensity. The conductor contributed a detailed program book essay about the Seventh Symphony that delved into its compositional history, religious and numerological aspects, particularly Bruckner's moving tribute to Richard Wagner in the second movement. Welser-Möst managed to translate his personal devotion to the symphony into a searing performance from beginning to end.

Although Bruckner's massive brass chorales and monumental full orchestra passages were all present, much of the symphony is orchestrated modestly, with only a few intruments playing. The Cleveland Orchestra's solo woodwind and brass players were featured prominently, all to excellent results. Despite the thick textures (for instance the long, pulsing final cadence at the end of the first movement) the sound was clear and not blasted. In softer passages, the balances were well-judged and pristine in their clarity. The second movement Adagio was especially moving in its representation of Christian redemption.

The third movement has the standard Scherzo—Trio—Scherzo structure of a Classical symphony, but at Bruckner's own large scale. It's largely jaunty character seems to reconcile the lament of the second movement. The fourth movement is relatively concise, again with a readily apparent arch-like structure. The three musical themes are presented to the center of the movement, and then the same music is presented in reverse order, ending with the same music as the beginning of the movement. Giant string chorales harken back to Catholic church music. In this performance, Welser-Möst's delineation of Bruckner's use of silence as a musical delineator was as striking as the music itself. At the symphony's end, he held the moment in silence for several seconds after the release of last glorious chord. Finally, there were shouts of approval for orchestra and conductor.