Cleveland Orchestra illuminates Mahler’s Second in a peak Miami performance

By Lawrence Budmen

The Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst conducting, soprano  Joélle Harvey (l) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (r), front of stage Friday at Miami's Arsht Center. Photo: Roger Mastroianni/The Cleveland Orchestra.

The Cleveland Orchestra with Franz Welser-Möst conducting, soprano Joélle Harvey (l) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (r), front of stage Friday at Miami’s Arsht Center. Photo: Roger Mastroianni/The Cleveland Orchestra.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s performances of Gustav Mahler have been high points of the ensemble’s annual Gold Coast residencies, and Friday at the Arsht Center conductor Franz Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders had one of their finest nights ever in Miami performing Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) in C minor.

The 80-minute, five-movement score unfolded as a surging journey between darkness and light, capped by the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and soloists’ stirring climactic resurrection hymn. In what has now been a 17-year collaboration between conductor and orchestra, the sheer smoothness of execution and attention to minute detail, instrumental color and warmth of corporate sonority remain striking.

From the first string tremolo, the opening Allegro maestoso was tautly conceived. Welser-Möst kept the tension between terror and triumph high and his meticulous control of dynamics produced playing that ranged from a whisper to full throttle fortissimos. Yet even these large orchestral volleys of sound were never brash or harsh. Big climaxes were delivered with a mellow finesse, and the moments of chamber-like intimacy that Mahler placed amid the symphonic grandeur — with solo clarinet, oboe, bassoon, trumpet and two harps — were arresting.

In the first movement’s contrasting lyrical moments, the tonal luster and unison precision of the violins commanded attention. Portamento (sliding between notes) in the manner of Mahler’s era was judiciously utilized.

The second movement Ländler emerged graceful and unhurried with the firm undercurrent of nine double basses buttressing the depth of string tone. At the movement’s conclusion, the plucked reprise of the principal melody was exquisite in its softness and delicacy.

Pounding timpani heralded the ominous opening of the Scherzo. Welser-Möst brought out both the Viennese charm and devilish undertones of the unhinged dance rhythms. Sudden wind and brass leaps and cries stood out to powerful effect.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke projected torrents of emotion in deep, earth-mother tones in “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”), the fourth movement adapted from Mahler’s favorite folk poetry collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“Youth’s Magic Horn”). In the song’s final measures, Cooke’s top notes gleamed.

An orchestral conflagration of thunderous proportions immediately introduced the final movement. Offstage brass (three horns and two trumpets) resounded as from some distant cavern against the purity of Joshua Smith’s solo flute. Joélle Harvey’s high soprano thrilled on her initial entry, the accompanying deep well of string tone streaming like a ray of light.

In the risers above the stage, the chorus’s hushed entry was sung seated. Cooke’s deeply felt command of “O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube” (“O believe, my heart, O believe”) brought the chorus to its feet for the deeply moving finale. Under director Lisa Wong, choral balances were well nigh ideal, and the blend of male and female voices rich and well focused. Ringing of bells at the final instrumental chords concluded the symphony on an uplifting note.

An audience that listened intently and did not break the spell by applauding between movements (even at the entrance of the soloists) awarded conductor, chorus and singers a prolonged standing, cheering ovation. Welser-Möst’s inspired interpretation of one of the greatest works in the symphonic canon was a high water mark in the Cleveland-Miami musical relationship.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.; 305-949-6722

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Sat Jan 26, 2019
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