prokofiev cleveland

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No.5 in B flat major Op100
The Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. 14 and 17 October 2021, Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Concert Hall, Severance Music Center, Cleveland, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
Available as a digital download only
The Cleveland Orchestra Recordings TCO-0006 [42]

Setting aside financial travails, musically the North American orchestral scene shows signs of rude health as several big name orchestras revive from sometimes decades long slumbers – the Boston Symphony under Nelsons, the Philadelphia under Nézet-Séguin and pick of the bunch, the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst are all back at their historic best. If you haven’t yet heard Welser-Möst’s version of the Schnittke Concerto for Piano and Strings with Yefim Bronfman featured in an earlier release in this series of live recordings then stop reading this review immediately and go and order it! It will change the way you think about that great neglected Russian master.

It seems a long time ago now that conductor Franz Welser-Möst was (according to Norman Lebrecht at any rate) given the cruel nickname of “Frankly Worse than Most” by the musicians of the London Philharmonic. Welser-Möst has had the last laugh on his former band for, as this recent series of releases on the orchestra’s own label vividly demonstrates, there is no hotter ticket in classical than the Austrian maestro with the Cleveland Orchestra. This isn’t first time London orchestras have been guilty of this sort of thing, having hounded out a certain Claudio Abbado a generation before and things worked out rather well for him in the end!

Conductor/orchestra pairings are all about chemistry and the excitement amongst the Cleveland players is palpable in this latest Prokofiev release. The cut glass perfection of the Szell era is still clearly audible but there is a refreshing thrill to the playing which marks out what I’m sure will go down in the annals as the Welser-Möst era. He has of course been in charge in Cleveland for quite some considerable time but the record buying public has only been able to hear what he and the orchestra have been up to since 2020.

The wartime genesis of Prokofiev’s fifth symphony has tended to encourage conductors to emphasis its weight which I think is a mistake that makes the work sound lumpy and bland. I wouldn’t make any claims for it as a definitive or even representative take on the symphony but I have always had a soft spot for Lorin Maazel’s version originally on Decca/London with a previous generation of Clevelanders and a lot of its virtues are still audible in this new account – nimble strings and woodwinds and balletic sprung rhythms. The climax of the slow movement will decide if this version is for you – the Cleveland brass has tremendous bite but the texture is as light as a soufflé. Contrast it with Karajan’s celebrated 1968 Berlin version and it feels like Karajan is conducting a funeral procession so heavy is the orchestral sound. Welser-Möst’s performance quivers with nervous life. Very different views. I find both exceptional but not everyone will, I suspect, agree.

Unsurprisingly, Welser-Möst’s approach works best in the scherzo and, above all, in an electric, manic account of the finale. The precision and detail of the playing adds to the excitement rather than takes away from it. All the albums in this series from Cleveland have enjoyed fabulous sound but here we can hear all the moving parts of Prokofiev’s extraordinary clockwork peroration. When an orchestra plays this well, there is an audible swagger to proceedings as if to say “Yes we are rather good, aren’t we?” A case in point is the stupendously bejewelled majesty of the close of the first movement- if it is possible to be delicate at full volume then that is what this is.

Welser-Möst is a subtle but strong presence – this is no exercise in self effacement. He directs that  big opening movement with a sense of almost tragic inevitability and builds the tension carefully, wave after wave. By not weighing the music down with too much portentous significance, the glorious violin lines soar high above in a massive blue sky over the endless Russian steppes.

It is worth pointing out that whilst 42 minutes seems very short measure, the downloads are priced accordingly. It is only available in download format – it is, however, the kind of recording to convert those wavering over taking the plunge into the world of digital recordings.

Even if this wasn’t such a fine interpretation of a great score, this would be worth hearing for the quality of the orchestral playing alone. As it is, it moves to the top of a very competitive tree and in at least one respect it has the field all to itself – no performance of comparable stature enjoys such high quality sound. All that remains for me to do is badger the people who run the Proms to bring Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra over very soon.

David McDade

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