Presented by The Cleveland Orchestra, these three SACDs come packaged in a box more akin to housing luxurious chocolates than playable discs, and are supported by a tome of a “companion book”, 150 pages, with all the essays in English and garnished with numerous photos. The musical choices are refreshingly unhackneyed: when the composer is familiar, the repertoire may not be, and there is also the adventurous inclusion of two recent scores that rightfully do not second-guess any listener’s preconception of what music is or should be.
Everything here is conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, the current long-serving music director (following Szell, Maazel and Dohnányi) and in that position until at least 2027, from concerts in Severance Hall, an impressive-looking auditorium of vintage design. The sound is excellent in terms of clarity, dynamism and tangibility, and applause is removed, as is audience rustling between movements: as close as you can get to a pristine studio production without stepping foot in one.
The first disc couples Beethoven’s A-minor String Quartet (Opus 132) with Edgard Varèse’s Amériques. The Beethoven (recorded 12 July 2019) works very well, enjoying the full complement of Cleveland strings (with added basses, of course, which have an attractive depth and resonance of timbre) to give a sheen to this imperishable music that avoids being sugar-coated or tinselly. Indeed, with playing of wonderful unanimity/light and shade, what can be a problem in an ‘arrangement’ such as this – i.e. the missing of four individuals interacting – is successfully avoided. The ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ slow movement is especially soulful and radiant, and the whole very rewarding. Listen out for the ardent violin solo during the fourth movement, and the swirl of the Finale.
The Varèse (25-27 May 2017), from incantatory flute solo to a frenzied conclusion of crushing power, was the composer’s first work on arriving in the States (1918-21, premiered by Stokowski in Philadelphia, then revised in 1927), portrays an urban jungle using an extravagantly large and percussion-rich orchestra, a remarkable piece of joined-up thinking, imagination and extremes of decibels, manfully captured here in terms of reproduction, and lavishly prepared for these performances.
Disc Two embraces Johannes Maria Staud and Richard Strauss. Staud (Austrian, born 1974) is represented by the eighteen-minute Stromab (Downstream), a Cleveland co-commission given in January 2018. It’s an atmospheric work, strong on colour and texture, rising in emotional temperature as it progresses and holding my attention as it explores – sometimes quirkily (towards the end it’s as if Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice has been whimsically distorted) – a journey in sound while also painting pictures.
Strauss’s early (Opus 16) Aus Italien isn’t heard too often, which is a shame, certainly when portrayed like this (23-25 May 2019), sumptuous and exhilarating, wonderfully well-played, with beauty, finesse and much attention devoted to details and dynamics, although I wish Strauss had come away from the second-movement roundabout a little sooner. Maybe the two slow movements (first and third: respectively Andante and Andantino) are here a little too Brucknerian in expanse, if beguiling, whereas the Finale is a romp, making use of ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’, which Strauss believed was an up-for-grabs folksong only to find it copyrighted to Luigi Denza. Welser-Möst and his Clevelanders make hay with it.
The final disc marries Okeanos by Bernd Richard Deutsch (another Austrian, born 1977) with Prokofiev’s Third Symphony. Okeanos is a half-hour organ concerto premiered in Vienna in 2015 and presented in Cleveland during March last year. The music has a filmic quality – primary colours, lots going on, cataclysmic climaxes, ethereal textures – but whether substance matches the length is another matter, although there is no doubt that Deutsch has a wide timbral palette at his disposal; even so my mind wandered during the thirty minutes, questioning if I shall ever listen to it again. Paul Jacobs is the flamboyant soloist on Severance’s 6,000-pipe Norton Memorial Organ (1930), a handsome-sounding beast.
Last but certainly not least is Prokofiev 3, using music from his opera The Fiery Angel, which the composer despaired of being staged and indeed it wasn’t during his lifetime. This clangourous, satanic, shadowy masterpiece of a Symphony, incorporating macabre interruptions and knockout punches, is given a gripping reading, stealthily built by Welser-Möst, as keen on lucidity as he is dark passions, reaching thrilling peaks and striving to a resounding if doom-laden conclusion: fabulous from 27 & 30 September 2018.
This very recommendable release is numbered as TCO0001 [3 SACDs].