Cleveland Orchestra, Welser-Möst serve up Prokofiev at his best and worst

By Lawrence Budmen

Franz Welser-Möst conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in the music of Prokofiev on Friday night the Arsht Center in Miami, and will repeat the program there on Saturday. Photo: Satoshi Aoyagi

Sometimes there are good reasons why certain scores by great composers are rarely if ever performed. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 in D minor, which the Cleveland Orchestra played on Friday night at the Arsht Center in Miami, is a prime example. The 1925 opus is a loud, ponderous essay that is almost devoid of solid thematic invention. Conductor Franz Welser-Möst’s juxtaposition of this curio with the concluding scenes from the composer’s superb Romeo and Juliet ballet (in the program’s second half) only emphasized the emptiness of the symphony’s rhetoric. 

Prokofiev described the two movement symphony as a work “of iron and steel.” Following the unsuccessful premiere in Paris, the composer related that neither he nor the audience understood the music. Ninety-five years later the score remains inscrutable. In the initial Allegro ben articolato, brass fanfares pile over each other in noise-driven cacophony, although the relentless clanging rhythms were executed with daunting exactness by the Clevelanders. Michael Sachs’ trumpet and Tom Freer on timpani were given a real workout, and were more than equal to the task.

The second-movement Theme and Variations is crafted with greater concision but only compared to the onslaught that preceded it. A principal ruminative motif suggests similar themes from Prokofiev’s ballet scores. But these contemplative strains quickly give way to more of the mechanistic pounding from the work’s earlier pages. Even the quiet variations seem contrived and uninspired. 

But the score certainly is a test of any ensemble’s corporate skill. Playing the symphony for the first time in its long history, the Clevelanders exuded stalwart brilliance and Welser-Möst’s tautly controlled tempos kept the momentum from flagging. Jeffrey Rathbun’s oboe solos in the second movement were elegant and lyrically fluent.

Written only ten years later, Romeo and Juliet seems to come from a different musical realm. It is difficult to fathom that Soviet dance companies initially rejected the work as too dissonant and complex.

Welser-Möst led all of the music from Acts III and IV. The ballroom, initial meeting, balcony scene and battles between the Montagues and Capulets have all passed at this point. A sense of impending tragedy hangs over every page of Prokofiev’s discourse. The opening fortissimo chords really packed a punch, but the softness of the ensuing string lines was even more impressive as an illustration of how this orchestra can turn on a dime from sonic heft to delicacy. 

In the beautiful love music of the doomed protagonists’ only night together, Joshua Smith’s pure-toned flute and the warmth of Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet contrasted with the molten glow of the lower strings. The burnished depth and Wesley Collins’ solo viola was particularly striking.

Welser-Möst shaped the ominous undercurrents of the potion motif to chilling effect. The aristocratic strokes of Mark Dumm’s mandolin accompanied the folk-infused “Morning Serenade.” There was caressing verve in the “Dance of the Girls with Lillies” as a moment of joy sets the stage for the dark finality to come. 

The sheer orchestral luxuriance of the final repetition of the love theme, as the lovers expire, was stunning. Welser-Möst drew out minute details from the instrumental fabric, the tinkling sounds of Miami native Joela Jones on celesta and the vibrant sonority of Steven Banks’ tenor saxophone emerging with special clarity. This reading of one of Prokofiev’s true masterworks showcased the Cleveland players at their finest.

The Cleveland Orchestra repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.

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Sat Jan 18, 2020
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