BBC Proms reviews

Prom 68: Cleveland Orchestra / Welser-Möst @ Royal Albert Hall, London

7 September 2014

Franz Welser-Möst(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

Franz Welser-Möst
(Photo: Chris Christodoulou)

The Cleveland Orchestra, easily the most European sounding of the American orchestras, has managed to avoid most of the financial difficulties that have troubled its fellow US ensembles in cities such Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Atlanta in recent years. Nevertheless, it’s an indication of the financial realities faced by a modern American orchestra, including the need to find generous corporate donors to fund overseas tours, that this was the Cleveland Orchestra’s first visit to London since 2006.

Led by Franz Welser-Möst, their Music Director since 2002, the orchestra’s two concerts at this year’s Proms coupled the music of Brahms with that of the contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Perhaps because of the perceived lack of variety across the two programmes or perhaps because the Qatar Symphony Orchestra had offered a considerably less expensive Prom experience just a few hours before, the first of the Cleveland Orchestra’s two appearances was the least well attended concert I’ve been to all season, the majority of the second tier boxes and circle seats sadly empty.

This was my first time seeing Franz Welser-Möst in the concert hall. The performances I’ve heard from him on CD and DVD previously have generally come across as methodical and earthbound, everything in the right place but little spirit or fire. Yet his career has let him to some of the top positions in music, including (until his recent resignation) that of General Music Director of the Vienna State Opera. I was therefore hoping that the live experience might reveal some sort of communicative flair not readily apparent from his recordings. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case on this occasion.

The concert opened with a performance of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. Welser-Möst’s approach was intimate, the fact that the work quotes a beer hall song rather kept under wraps, but the orchestral playing was elegant and the conclusion was suitably ebullient. In the First Symphony, the playing was also extremely refined, the velvet smooth orchestral texture illuminated with expressive solo contributions and a sense of the musicians listening to each other. It was an interpretation to banish the idea of Brahms not being a first rate orchestrator, and was a pleasure to listen to. However, it was also an interpretation that seemed to gloss over the drive and passion that are key elements of the symphony. Welser-Möst was certainly an energetic figure on the podium and the playing was visibly committed and responsive, but the First Symphony needs more drama and grandeur than it was given here.

Inbetween the two Brahms works was Widmann’s Flûte en suite, written in 2011 for the orchestra’s Principal Flute, Joshua Smith, who was also the soloist in this performance. The suite consists of eight movements, inspired by the second of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, showcasing the flute in contrasting ways. Much of the orchestral writing, notably the muted brass in the first chorale, evoked the feel of early 20th century Vienna, Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in particular, although the use of harpsichord in the Courante was a deliberate throwback to the baroque. In the final movement, entitled Badinerie, the theme from the last movement of the Bach suite was quoted in full before being overwhelmed and subverted by a variety of outbursts from woodwind, brass and percussion. The effect was undeniably humorous, although I’m not sure one that would endure repeated listening.

An encore was provided in the form of the Csárdás from Johan Strauss II’s opera Ritter Pázmán. It received an exuberant and characterful performance, in many ways the most successful of the evening.

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