Franz Welser-Möst was back on the podium this weekend to close out the final few weeks of the season. For this week’s program he juxtaposed a very familiar work, the “New World” symphony of Antonín Dvořák, with a rarely-played work by Paul Hindemith and the Cleveland première of German composer Jörg Widmann’s austerely beautiful 2007 Violin Concerto, with its brilliant advocate, Christian Tetzlaff, as the soloist. The result was a very satisfying concert that made the familiar seem as fresh as the new music.

Christian Tetzlaff © Georgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Georgia Bertazzi

Jörg Widmann’s association with the Cleveland Orchestra goes back to 2009, when for two seasons he was the orchestra’s Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow. Welser-Möst has been a champion of Widmann’s works, including an all-Widmann concert in Berlin on the orchestra’s autumn 2014 European tour. The Violin Concerto inhabits the sound world of Alban Berg’s late works, especially his Violin Concerto and the unfinished opera Lulu. The soloist plays almost continuously through the concerto’s 25-minute duration, which is in a single movement, but with several clearly delineated sections. The work begins with an extended solo violin introduction. When the orchestra enters, it is in a supporting role, mostly quite lightly orchestrated, but dark and often dense, slow-moving, chromatic, ruminative. There are several delicate passages shimmering with high pitched percussion and harp. The focus is always on the soloist, who plays yearning, sensuous, but highly-chromatic, lines, interspersed with passages of violence and virtuosity. There are several intricate, yet voice-like cadenzas, as if for an insane coloratura. The work ends quietly; Welser-Möst, Tetzlaff and orchestra held the audience rapt for a few magical moments of silence at the end.

Tetzlaff played with a huge sound, easily carrying over the orchestral texture. His performance had the passion and unstoppable virtuosity often associated with the great Romantic concertos. With his considerable experience with the piece, it is safe to assume that his performance was authoritative. He (very reasonably) played from musical score, with a hard-working but discreet page turner to assist him. Tetzlaff made the best possible case that Widmann’s Violin Concerto is a major work of great beauty that deserves even greater prominence in the concerto repertoire.

The closing work on the program was a visit to an old friend, Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor “From the New World”. Certainly it is one of the most beloved works in the symphonic canon, so the question arises, what is new to say about the piece? Welser-Möst answered the question with practical solutions: choose sensible tempos, make the textures clear, emphasize details that sometimes get lost, don’t dally, but don’t be in a big hurry either. What emerged was a very attractive performance, nuanced, with plenty of opportunity of flexibility of phrasing, but not mannered or indulgent.

After the first movement’s introduction, Welser-Möst favored a brisk tempo, but interspersed with moments of gentle stillness. In the second movement Largo, it was clear from the opening brass chords that the conductor was not going to linger, but he hit a sweet spot, not too slow, but not too fast. English horn soloist Robert Walters’ playing of the famous solo was beautifully integrated into the overall orchestral texture. It was by no means submerged or too soft, but seemed sensitively “distant”, lending a nostalgic sense of melancholy to those passages. Welser-Möst seamlessly elided the orchestra’s phrases, spinning out long arches of melody.

There were contrasts of tempo – stormy, and sometimes relaxed – in the scherzo, but with the same clarity of texture as in the Largo. The scherzo led attacca into the last movement, fast and fierce. There were a few moments of repose, but the ferocity was never far away, with a race to the end. The final chord melted away to silence.

The concert had opened with Paul Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for strings and brass, written in 1930 on commission from the Boston Symphony. The Cleveland Orchestra’s program note described it as “one of the most thrilling orchestra works of the 20th century,” a claim that takes in a lot of territory, and, if such is the case, it begs the question why it has not been performed at Severance Hall since 1974. It has standard Hindemithian flora and fauna: a zillion notes, massive brass chorales, excursions to remote harmonic centers that always seem to end in major chords (or in this case, a single unison note), dense polyphony and rhythms that tend to be four-square, not nearly as interesting as those of Stravinsky’s contemporaneous works. But my indifference to the work does not diminish the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of it, which was quite splendid, especially the trumpet and trombone solos played respectively by Michael Sachs and Massimo La Rosa.

****1