CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio – On paper, it looked a touch humdrum. In reality, it proved deeply compelling.
Just another night at Blossom Music Center with the Cleveland Orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Most.
To this longtime listener, the prospect Saturday wasn’t exactly enticing: another account of Beethoven’s Seventh, a war-horse if ever there were one. But this longtime listener also should have known: It’s Beethoven, and this team doesn’t do average.
To call it revelatory would be to go too far. And yet, to label the performance anything less than insightful and fresh would be to commit an injustice.
There were moments, to be sure, when Welser-Most pushed too hard. In the first and last movements, for instance, the heat he applied was relentless, and gestures meant to whip up energy sometimes came off as heavy-handed.
But there was always a payoff. In exchange for these peccadilloes, listeners received two doses of pure excitement, two scenes in which zeal never flagged, the dramatic arch remained clear, and the orchestra displayed the full, glorious extent of its skill at high speed.
And oh, the slow movement. The famous Allegretto was reborn Saturday not only as a study in slow-mounting tension but also as a mine rich in supporting material. Inner voices typically tamped down rose to the surface and played vital, complex roles.
There was even a twinge of brutalism. As the music grew in speed and intensity, Welser-Most heightened the contrast between darkness and light, sweetening the lyrical pot and hammering bolder passages with blunt force, all to devastating effect.
And that was just the second half. The first half of the program was engaging in both theory and practice.
For all the ubiquity of the Beethoven, the two French works on the night’s first half were true rarities. Indeed, before Saturday, the Cleveland Orchestra hadn’t touched either for years.
Both deserve a renaissance. Both Milhaud’s “Le Boeuf sur le toit” (“The Ox on the Roof”) and the Suite No. 2 from Roussel’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” proved effective concert pieces, especially in the hands of the Cleveland Orchestra.
Milhaud’s ode to Brazil, later reframed as a surrealist ballet, made for a flamboyant opener. Orchestra and Welser-Most alike reveled in its many melodies and took obvious delight in its angular rhythms and tangy dissonance.
The Roussel was no less evocative. Welser-Most and the orchestra gave the 1930 ballet excerpt a driven and dynamic reading, one that readily told a story of anxiety, seduction, magic, and triumph. From their portrayals of larger-than-life gods and goddesses, nothing was missing. The only question was why we don’t hear Roussel more often.
That may not be the only question, actually. Given what transpired with the Beethoven Saturday and the frequency with which the Cleveland Orchestra exceeds expectations, it’s fair to wonder why one ever doubts at all.