CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 30 MARCH 2006
Arnold Schoenberg: Kol Nidre, Op. 39. Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major. (Andreas Zimmermann, narr.; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
"At the Philharmonic Society's fifth evening concert last evening," reported the Times, "Mr. [Josef] Stransky undertook the formidable task of interesting the New York musical public in a symphony by Anton Bruckner." The year was 1911, the occasion the New York premiere of the Bruckner Fifth—the work that forms the bulk of this weekend's Cleveland Orchestra program. And, if the gap of over three decades between the music's composition and its first New York appearance is insufficient evidence of the symphony's difficulties in the marketplace, consider the opinion of the Times' unnamed critic, who noted that the performance's conductor "gave the work in a version shortened by very considerable excisions. In this case it was a proceeding much to be commended."
Fortunately, posterity has judged differently, and now the much-cut Schalk version of the Fifth seems vaguely freakish. In 1911, it was more likely that the composer himself would have attracted the adjective. And if you're accustomed to Bruckner's symphonies being treated as transcendent "cathedrals in sound," with only a coincidental connection to the human who created them, Music Director Franz Welser-Möst's approach to the Fifth might surprise you. This Bruckner is capable of splendor, to be sure; but his head is bursting with ideas of other shapes and kinds, and he juxtaposes them with a sure-footed dramatic flair. His music, here, is more closely akin to a Shakespeare play than to Vienna's Stephansdom.
There were hints, at Thursday evening's concert, that the Orchestra is not yet completely attuned to Welser-Möst's interpretation. Moments of technical and rhythmic unevenness in the second movement will, in all likelihood, resolve themselves by the time the ensemble tapes the work for TV and DVD this fall in Austria. For the moment, they're of little matter, and distract only momentarily from a rendition of this symphony that's at once impressively powerful and inescapably human.
The Bruckner Fifth is oddly paired with Arnold Schoenberg's Kol Nidre—a somewhat peculiar construction for speaker, chorus, and orchestra that fuses an adaptation of prayer recited at the opening Yom Kippur service with a Kabbalistic creation story. The spoken part is taken, here, by Andreas Zimmermann, a Swiss actor who renders Schoenberg's Sprechstimme far more naturally than John Shirley-Quirk does on the work's most familiar recording.
Welser-Möst's performance of Kol Nidre, featuring an unusually reserved-sounding Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, emphasizes the lean and modern aspects of Schoenberg's elusive piece. It's music that resists easy definition—but then so does the evocative conceptual world of the Kabbalah, on which it draws. A recent book on the subject by Hebrew University professor Joseph Dan makes the whimsical suggestion that Kabbalah might be defined as "something that I have a vague notion of, but somebody, somewhere, knows exactly what it means."
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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