Not surprisingly the Cleveland Orchestra spends part of the winter in Miami. On Saturday evening February 28 the band, led by its Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, played Beethoven’s 5th Symphony followed after the intermission by Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. The venue was the Knight Concert Hall. They had played the same composers’ 3rd and 6th symphonies the previous evening.
Beethoven’s C minor symphony is the Everest of the classical symphony. No composer has ever gotten so much out of so little. Adding more words to the millions already written about the work can serve no purpose. It inhabits a land populated only by Beethoven himself. It is so great that no matter how fine the performance it always seems that there is terrain within it that still needs exploration.
The visiting Ohioans under Welser-Möst’s direction managed to get pretty far into the vital interstices of the piece. The first movement was breathtakingly fast, though not beyond the capacity of this great virtuosic orchestra. The slow movement was lyrical and graceful. The Clevelanders lush sound was palpable. The triumphant finale was grand and overwhelming. The performance was yet another explanation for why even after 1000 hearings this symphony remains vibrant and fresh.
Shostakovich, who died only 40 years ago, was the last of the great symphonists. The final stop on a line reaching back to Haydn. Mahler though he was the last, but he was off by a few stops. Shostakovich, like every other composer after Beethoven, was influenced and intimidated by the great German. But his aesthetic model was different from that of the German masters. He comes from a tradition highlighted by Tchaikovsky and Mahler, but which is stamped with his own original conception of how a symphony should be made.
Musical development and strict adherence to sonata form are not the solid underpinnings of a Shostakovich symphony. Ambiguity, brashness, orchestral brilliance, and the vulgarity of the truly great genius are the foundations on which his work is based.
The first movement is the longest of the four. Slow and introspective, it is written in a modified sonata form. The second movement is very short and is perhaps the most ferocious music ever written. The third is consciously modeled on some of the dance based movements of Mahler. The last movement starts slowly and then concludes in a fast explosion of orchestral splendor.
Maestro Welser-Möst has mastered Shostakovich’s idiom as well as he has that of Beethoven. His orchestra was perfect. Every nuance from the horns to the strings to the percussion section was perfection personified. This was a great orchestra at the top of its game.
An interesting sidelight. Welser-Möst conducted both symphonies from their scores. But all he did with them was turn their pages. I saw him look at the score only once.