Cleveland Orchestra’s “German Requiem”, plus a new work

This weekend Franz Welser-Möst is conducting the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus in Johannes Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) with soprano Nicole Cabell and baritone Russell Braun as soloists. Robert Porco prepared the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.  Rarely have I heard this work performed with such clarity and directness, yet with the requisite boldness and tenderness.  Franz is an outstanding choral conductor–a trait not always found in orchestral conductors, even those with talent for opera. The chorus is not left “on their own” to figure out what to do. I have witnessed even such notable conductors as Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnanyi leave the chorus behind in the dust.

With absolutely parochial interest, I note that the Norton Memorial Organ was used in this performance, played by Joela Jones, to give an added sonic “boost” to the bass, but also supporting the vocal lines.  It was mostly not audible, but it was “there,” and I’m glad they used the organ.

Russell Braun has a lovely voice, but he seemed a bit underpowered for this particular performance.  (Or perhaps Franz should have shut down the orchestra a bit more.)  In the single movement that the soprano soloist appears, one has gotten used to hearing light voices (think Kathleen Battle, Dawn Upshaw, or even the German Christine Schäfer). Nicole Cabell, although obviously a lyric soprano, has a darker, richer, more luscious voice.  It made a nice contrast with the “classic” texture of sound in the rest of the performance.

The concert opened with a Cleveland premiere of Chor (for orchestra), a 2003-04 work by German composer Jörg Widmann, who is beginning his two season tenure as the orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow. While it is impossible to judge a complex contemporary work on one hearing, what is not in question is the Cleveland Orchestra’s brilliant performance. The work is in a broad arc with a stupendous central climax marked with ear-splitting rolls on suspended cymbals, strings at extremely high pitch, and, I believe, multiple police whistles. (It was really too loud, and I felt forced to hold my ears.) The pace is slow, with many long notes overlapping one another.  An offstage solo trumpet (the orchestra’s amazing principal trumpet Michael Sachs) started the work with a dialogue with a bowed vibraphone and notes on an accordion (played by the ever-versatile Joela Jones).  The texture and amplitude gradually increase until the climax, then start to dissolve again, but with “speed bumps” along the way–huge interjections by the full orchestra interrupting the quiet flow of the music.  At several points there are quite tonal “chorale”-type passages of an almost of a Brahmsian nature, but always deconstructed, as if the aural equivalent of looking in a funhouse mirror.  The work makes extensive use of quarter-tone playing in all the parts, and the orchestra’s pitch and clarity were quite astonishing.  (After hearing Chor, I am tantalized by what the orchestra would make of Thomas Ades’s monumental and beautiful  Tevot, written for Berliner Philharmoniker.  The orchestra is performing Ades’s Violin Concerto later this season, and Franz has conducted more of his music in the past.  Come on Franz, let’s have Tevot!)

Virtual Farm Boy is constantly complaining about too many standing ovations at concerts in Cleveland, but this is a case where the ovation was richly deserved.  The orchestra is off for a few weeks on European tour and a residency in Vienna.  We’ll look forward to their return in mid-November.

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