CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 16 MARCH 2006
Julian Anderson: Diptych. Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D.485. Richard Strauss: Don Quixote—Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters. (Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
Guy Davenport once recounted the story of a student in one of his University of Kentucky literature classes who had come to suspect that the title character of Don Quixote was, in fact, insane. Only one thing troubled the student about this hypothesis. "I find it hard to believe," he declared, "that they would write a whole book about a crazy man." Not just a book, but ballets, operas, pop songs, movies, and, yes, Broadway's Man of La Mancha—all of them part of the long story of the Knight of the Sorry Face's domestication. It's a considerable distance from what Vladimir Nabokov dubbed Cervantes' "veritable encyclopedia of cruelty" to Jack Jones fighting the unbeatable foe.
The literature aficionado might scorn Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Quixote as being about halfway down that slippery slope. The music lover will judge it far less harshly—particularly when it is performed as intelligently as it was at Thursday's night's Cleveland Orchestra concert. Just a couple of months ago, Franz Welser-Möst's new EMI CD of the Strauss Alpine Symphony made Gramophone magazine's Editor's Choice list. At the time, James Jolly wrote that Welser-Möst was "fast becoming one of today's major Strauss conductors." Hearing this powerful version of Don Quixote, it's hard to disagree. Welser-Möst pushed Strauss' Quixote back toward Cervantes' original with a reading that resisted facile romanticism. Listeners accustomed to a gentler Quixote might have been surprised by, say, the sheer grittiness of the brass in the work's introduction. The committed but unsentimental solo contributions of cellist Desmond Hoebig—who often shared the spotlight with Orchestra colleagues Robert Vernon and William Preucil—added to the result: a Quixote that was simultaneously close to its acrid wellsprings and strikingly modern.
The unusually pronounced lower registers sometimes evident in Welser-Möst's Quixote were also a feature of the program opener-Schubert's Fifth Symphony. In the earlier parts of the first-movement exposition, Welser-Möst seemed to emphasize the timbres of the lower strings and woodwinds. The resulting sonic forces combined fleetness and agility with a certain sinewy power. The symphony's third-movement trio sounded a trifle uncommitted—neither willing to sustain the momentum of the outer sections nor bold enough to set out on its own—but otherwise this was an engaging and interesting rendition of this popular work.
In between Schubert and Strauss, Welser-Möst offered the U.S. premiere of Diptych, by the Orchestra's new Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow, Julian Anderson. I was never entirely convinced by the orchestral efforts of Susan Botti, the previous holder of the post. Anderson, however, seems completely at home in the medium. I found Diptych, on this first hearing, both provocative and powerfully moving.
That this talented composer's work has, as far as I can ascertain, almost no representation on CD is surprising. Then again, anything's possible in a world where someone can write an entire novel about a crazy man.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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