The Cleveland Orchestra came to the Salzburg Festival as this year’s American guest, under longtime music director Franz Welser-Möst. They have a gorgeous tone, but something was definitely missing – perhaps the virtuosity of the Philadelphians, who are in a league of their own among US orchestras, let alone the personality of the Vienna Philharmonic (always the criticism Cleveland’s previous long-time music director Christoph von Dohnányi had of this orchestra, and he obviously liked his own team!). I was clearly not the only one who felt this way: the applause was lukewarm, and although they looked like they were preparing their music stands to do an encore, the audience actually walked out pretty quickly. This is probably unfair, since they are still probably among the top 20 orchestras in the world, and maybe #2 or #3 in the United States (Chicago is probably still a notch better than Cleveland, and neither compares with Philadelphia).
The concert opened with Béla Bartók‘s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, an exciting work whose mood jumps around and which the orchestra handled with ease. The Orchestra does have a wonderful sound, and as a group can capture the swings in this music, but although individual instruments also sounded fantastic, they did not stand out with any particular personality. That’s OK for orchestal ensemble playing, but the trick is still finding the balance of spectacular individual playing within the group. And when the music swelled to tutti, it lacked fullness. It’s not that they did not manage the volume, just that it felt surprisingly thin.
After the intermission, the Orchestra performed Tod und Verklärung and the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, without a break. Welser-Möst presumably did this to capture the quotation at the end of the final song, when Strauss circles back on a theme he had written in Tod und Verklärung almost sixty years earlier. The playing was sweet – maybe too much so for music leading to death. The performance lacked a sense of melancholy, especially as Welser-Möst seemed inclined to take faster-than-usual tempi, which left the orchestra missing some cues. So we raced through the middle of Tod und Verklärung, and the only thing slowing down the songs was the fact that soloist Anja Harteros clearly wanted to go more slowly than Welser-Möst. He kept getting ahead of her, and then had to slow down for her. I’d say she was steady, except that her voice wobbled unevenly.
The audience expected more and held this orchestra to a higher standard than it could achieve. That assessment is probably fair, given how much the Cleveland Orchestra touts itself, but not fair in that if we’d just expected something less we might have come away impressed by some truly beautiful ensemble playing. When are the Philadelphians coming to Salzburg?