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Cleveland Orchestra returns to Bruckner and Widmann with renewed, clearer vision (review)

Cleveland.com
January 13, 2017
By Zachary Lewis
http://tinyurl.com/gwtlkxh

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Out of agony this week at Severance Hall comes a disproportionate degree of ecstasy.

No matter that both works on the program were conceived at least partially in sadness. The Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Most still manage to make the experience of them uplifting.

As well they might have been expected to do. Both Bruckner and Jorg Widmann are composers with whom the musicians are intimately familiar. Welser-Most has been an avid (some might say too avid) champion of Widmann, and the symphonies of Bruckner have emerged as hallmarks of his tenure.

That intimacy certainly shone through the performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 Thursday night. After several years away from the score and a DVD recording, Welser-Most returned to the piece with seemingly clearer eyes, more determined than ever to reveal its structural and emotional wonders.

Never has the conductor taken a smooth, luxurious approach to Bruckner. His preference, exemplified again Thursday, has always been to revel in the music's abruptness, to celebrate its contrasts and never to deprive listeners of a tumultuous, rough-and-tumble ride.

Nowhere was this philosophy more evident, or more greatly appreciated, than in the symphony's Finale. As the cap to Bruckner's long musical journey, Welser-Most gave each force in the orchestra, especially the brass, carte blanche, even at the expense of balance, elegance, and other niceties. The result was a turbulent wrestling match, in which the tide shifted often and the struggle was relentless.

No less effective was the Adagio. If ever there were a piece Welser-Most was born to conduct, this is it. In that one movement, Bruckner audibly grapples with all the eternal questions and ultimately transforms his melancholy over the imminent death of Wagner into a grand affirmation of life and faith.

The performance Thursday lacked for nothing. The lyrical opening was as tender and achingly beautiful as could be, the long, gradual rise to resolution wholly organic and irresistible. On top of that came a devastating climax.

The takeaway from the first movement, meanwhile, was Bruckner's structural genius. After taking a few bars to settle, Welser-Most and the orchestra set about erecting a solid tower in which every component, from the foundation to the peak, was audibly, inextricably, and poignantly linked. They did so, too, without applying gloss or making any attempt to patch over the bumps.

Structure was also one of several admirable traits of Widmann's "Trauermarsch" ("Funeral March"), an absorbing, single-movement piano concerto performed by pianist Yefim Bronfman. Even as the 25-minute score, a joint commission from 2014, ranged in innumerable, chaotic directions, a simple stepping motif persisted, lumbering steadily beneath it all.

Color and texture were its other finest qualities. Brilliant as he was negotiating a dense and wandering thicket at the keyboard, Bronfman was only the most prominent element in a dazzling chromatic patchwork.

Bolstered by a host of unusual percussion instruments, the orchestra joined and dovetailed the piano on a stately trek interrupted by everything from bouts of frenetic screaming to alien melodies. A few profoundly low notes on the rarely-heard contrabass clarinet endowed the conclusion with a chilling air of finality.

Musical ecstasy comes in many forms, and this, surely, was one of them.

Posted on 13 January 2017