Cleveland Orchestra at its peak in Mahler’s epic farewell

By Lawrence Budmen


Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 Friday night at the Arsht Center. File photo: Stefan Cohen

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is the summation of his musical odyssey. All of the composer’s joys and sorrows, exhilaration and tragedy are found in his last musical will and testament. 

Mahler never heard a performance of this seminal masterpiece. He completed his final draft of the score in early 1911. Following his death in May, 1911, the score was given its premiere the following year in Vienna by Mahler’s protégé and disciple Bruno Walter. Over more than a century since that initial performance, many conductors and orchestras have risen to the challenge of one of the most complex, yet rewarding works in the symphonic repertoire.

On Friday night at Miami’s Arsht Center, Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra captured much of the intense emotional core of this unique score, particularly in the symphony’s final two movements.

The Clevelanders have a long history of Mahler performance. (The ensemble first programmed the Ninth Symphony in 1948 under the legendary George Szell.) Indeed this most classical of major American orchestras has the ideal sound for Mahler–warm and rounded without exaggerated force. The orchestra’s blending of timbres is wonderfully smooth and subtle, the balance and interplay between instrumental choirs near ideal.

Welser-Möst set a deliberate pace at the outset of the twenty-five-minute first movement. Understatement seemed to pervade the opening pages. Gradually the reading accumulated greater power as the movement progressed. The strings’ slides between notes and phrases, in the manner of Mahler’s era, produced particularly appropriate and felicitous shaping of the musical arc’s long-limbed spiral. Climaxes brought both decibel and emotive impact as the music turned gradually more unhinged. The hugely varied dynamic palette ranged from near inaudibility to ear shattering salvos.

Mahler’s horn calls, accompanied by bells, emerged with mock martial eeriness. The burnished sonority of the horn and trombone choirs resounded with both corporate power and  precision. Joshua Smith’s silvery flute solos captured Mahler’s more introspective aura. Smith seemed to spin even the most angular phrases in one long, unbroken breath. Concertmaster William Preucil’s honeyed reprise of the symphony’s opening motif and the movement’s soft ending achieved catharsis.

Welser-Möst took an aggressive approach to the second movement, the rhythms taut and hard driven. This Ländler seemed more a portrait of a rustic peasant dance than the Viennese ballroom, lacking a needed dose of gemütlich verve and charm. The ensuing Rondo Burleske took off at a fierce clip and Welser-Möst maintained that whirlwind intensity to the final bars. Mahler’s nightmarish musical vision was given full weight and fury. Oboist Frank Rosenwein and principal trumpet Michael Sachs were standouts among the excellent wind and brass soloists.

The full, lustrous tone of the violins in the opening moments of the final movement set the stage for an eloquently shaped Adagio with a strong sense of tragedy and despair beneath the players’ finely chiseled corporate sonority. While the big climaxes had emphatic ring, moments of calm were nicely contrasted. The underpinning of two harps and nine double basses beneath the string textures was clear and audible without over emphasis. 

Welser-Möst brought out the full quotient of Mahler’s angst in his symphonic swan song. The symphony’s final pages bring some of the most extraordinary writing in the entire symphonic canon as the music fades to near silence. Welser-Möst drew out this final farewell with poignancy and a dark finality.

All credit to an exceptionally attentive audience that did not applaud between movements and remained quiet at the conclusion, withholding applause until Welser-Möst lowered his arms. The ovation that followed was one of the most prolonged the Clevelanders have received in over a decade of Miami residencies.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Posted in Performances

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Sat Jan 27, 2018
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