CLEVELAND — When I told people in the classical music world why I was traveling here for a few days, mouths tended to drop open. There were bursts of awe-struck laughter. There was jealousy.
“Jesus,” someone replied when I posted about my trip on Twitter, “that’s my idea of heaven.”
This heaven, ascended toward by Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra as an exclamation point on its 100th anniversary celebrations, is simple enough to name: a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie” on Wednesday evening, followed on Thursday by Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”
But what might seem straightforward was actually extraordinary — even, perhaps, unprecedented. There are a lot of great, ambitious orchestras in the world; I don’t know another that would have gone for what the Clevelanders did this week.
“Tristan” is a nearly four-hour score of immense complexity that is not, to say the least, what a symphony orchestra pulls out every season. (The Cleveland Orchestra hadn’t done it whole since 1933.) Yet in the midst of a run of concert performances of the opera, this ensemble plopped a single go at “Turangalîla,” all 80 steroidally scored minutes of it.
Inspired by the Tristan legend, Messiaen’s riotous celebration of love is a loopy, visionary kind-of concerto for piano and the whistling ondes martenot: Think of a Chagall painting in sound. It usually requires nearly a week of dedicated preparation and a series of performances to justify the effort.
Throwing together just one night of it — and bringing in soloists on the level of the star pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the ondes master Cynthia Millar — is a little like building a five-star French restaurant for a single dinner service. It’s one way to define orchestral luxury.
To program it alongside Wagner’s opera, though, as part of a festival dubbed The Ecstasy of Tristan and Isolde, is not luxurious as much as slightly insane. The reason this plan made it past a spitballing session and into viable — indeed, beautiful — life? This is the Cleveland Orchestra, the culture of which may be understated but which knows precisely what it’s capable of.
What the orchestra provided, in essence, was an unusually elaborate music-history lesson. Messiaen was not solely riffing on Wagner’s “Tristan” when he wrote “Turangalîla” in the late 1940s. But the opera’s harmonic experimentation and daring intensity, its bold depiction of sexual obsession amid societal pressure, its fevered nighttime love scene, were clear influences on the later symphony.
And Mr. Welser-Möst brought the same conception to both: lightness, transparency, poise, an emphasis on textural variety, the quality of aeration that is his trademark. “Turangalîla,” in particular, is often merely loud and sludgy. But this performance felt spacious, glittering, shapely, never overbearing. And Mr. Thibaudet was just right for it: Not a keyboard pounder, he went for sensuality and witty sprightliness.
The shimmer at the end of the second “Chant d’amour” was dazzling in its restraint, rather than being Technicolor-bright. The start of the “Turangalîla I” section placed clarinet, ondes, double bass and bells pristinely atop one another, as if with silver tweezers.
Indeed, I was struck the following evening by how sheerly louder “Tristan” got from the very beginning, which builds to a ferocious evocation of sexual union. But the end of the Prelude was remarkable: a vision of the loneliness that follows togetherness, as forlorn and clouded as a fog-filled sea.
Polished and conscientious, the performance was a little cool to the touch. (It was closer to the guy you bring home to Mom than the other kind, the Tristan kind.) There was a feeling more of momentarily vivid colors than of larger ebbs and flows of intensity.
The soprano Nina Stemme’s Isolde is a known quantity; she sounded wonderful, as ever — the voice healthy and mellow, the high notes rich and penetrating. Yet there’s little sense of risk with her, and when there was, Mr. Welser-Möst certainly wasn’t abetting it. The revelation of the cast was the mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau, a Brangäne of bright, unforced power.
The long, crucial central love duet strained the tenor Gerhard Siegel, as Tristan, almost to breaking; the scene’s listlessness left an empty space at the opera’s center. Mr. Siegel was more effective at the agonies of the third act than the ecstasies of the second. And, in general, this was a “Tristan” in which solitude was more persuasive than communion.
Many ensembles would have done the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s opera — or maybe, like the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently, an excerpted act. A few would have done a complete “Tristan” alone. Maybe one or two would have added a bonus performance of a suite from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” or something, on a program about great lovers. (That would have sold a lot better than “Turangalîla.”)
But even before a season-ending Beethoven cycle that will tour to Vienna and Tokyo, Cleveland proved its mettle, yet again, by going above and beyond. Oh, and did I mention that Saturday brings a dive into sacred love, with 16th-century brass pieces, contemporary choral works, a Bach cantata and solo-organ fantasias? That’s the evening before the final “Tristan” matinee.
Just another weekend in the life of America’s most understatedly amazing orchestra.
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