RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR
‘Even before considering the performances – which are quite something – every other aspect of the set manifests pride and care’
Peter Quantrill gives an enthusiastic welcome to a lavish set from The Cleveland Orchestra and their music director Franz Welser-Möst, a fusion of beauty, imagination and confidence
‘A New Century’ Beethoven String Quartet No 15, Op 132 (arr Welser-Möst)a BR Deutsch Okeanosb Prokofiev Symphony No 3, Op 44c Staud Stromabd R Strauss Aus Italien, Op 16e Varèse Amériquesf b Paul Jacobs org The Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst Cleveland Orchestra F c TCO0001 (3h 8’ • DDD) Recorded live at Severance Hall, Cleveland, OH, on f May 25-27, 2017; dJanuary 11-13, cSeptember 27 & 30, 2018; bMarch 14-17, eMay 23-25, aJuly 12, 2019
When Franz Welser-Möst’s contract next comes up for renewal in 2027, he will be the longest-serving music director in the history of The Cleveland Orchestra. For cynics who sniped throughout his LPO tenure in the 1990s, such longevity may serve to confirm the modern dearth of top-drawer maestros to rival the orchestra’s spiritual conscience, George Szell. In post since 2002, his Austrian successor has so far hardly produced a recorded legacy comparable with the 106-CD Columbia/Sony treasury appraised in these pages by Richard Osborne (11/18). Record-label economics and orchestral manoeuvres have altered out of all recognition since Szell’s heyday. Now, breathlessly trailed partnerships with DG having long fizzled out, The Cleveland are belatedly following their top-tier rivals in London, Berlin and Amsterdam, and going it alone.
If such caution speaks of a certain conservatism endemic to the privately funded American orchestral scene, to the old cultural cringe that sees all of its ‘Big Five’ bands still headed by European men, cast your eyes over the contents. There’s nothing standard, let alone safe, about it. Even before considering the performances – which are quite something – every other aspect of the set manifests pride, care and sound instincts on the part of The Cleveland Orchestra’s members and staff, even the often over-ascribed sense of family that brings such ensembles together (and often drives them apart). Articles in the 150-page booklet feature the music, the musicians, their home in Severance Hall, its
Skinner organ, and their collective place in the life of the city of Cleveland.
So, the music: as with all upscaled versions of Beethoven quartets, there is a single guiding intelligence at work which is foreign to the material of Op 132 and its dialectic. Counteracting any tendency towards elephantine expansion, however, are the fleet tempos adopted by Welser-Möst, especially in the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’, and the exceptionally agile reflexes of the Cleveland strings, who do everything possible in the Minuet and finale to phrase and answer with the semblance of spontaneity. In generously doubling the bass, the conductor’s own arrangement relies for its effect on hair-trigger engineering as well as playing, while the recitative-introduction to the finale is assigned to the leader alone and taken with some style.
Like the set as a whole, the performance adds up to more than the sum of its parts. What slows down the ear, tunes it into the pace of the musical argument, is the sheer beauty of the playing, like heightened naturalism on a canvas, the ‘refinement and freedom’ of The Cleveland
18 GRAMOPHONE RECORDINGS OF THE YEAR 2020