In Cleveland, Schubert Outsings Even the Mighty ‘Otello’

CLEVELAND – On the morning of Friday, March 13, 2020, the Cleveland Orchestra played Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. The musicians were in concert dress, but just a handful of people were in the seats of Severance Hall. Pandemic bans on public gatherings were going into effect, and this would be the last concert here before the long lockdown.

A section of the symphony was released a few weeks later, as part of the premiere episode of a new podcast from the ensemble. By way of introduction, its longtime music director, Franz Welser-Möst, spoke about what he’d felt as he led the second movement: “I thought, all of a sudden, this might be the last time I ever conduct this orchestra again . ”

Amid the anxiety and uncertainty of early April 2020 in New York, I remember listening to him say that, and bursting into tears. So I have rarely had a sweeter experience with music than returning to Severance on Friday morning and listening to the Clevelanders and Welser-Möst play, yes, Schubert’s Ninth.

This is music of stark shifts between celebration and melancholy, ballroom grandeur and drawing-room wistfulness, between forcefulness and expansiveness. It is a sprawling work that nevertheless, when done well, unfolds with a sense of inevitability through all its changes.

Welser-Möst said on the podcast that the performance for the near-empty hall – with everyone “calm but extremely, extremely focused” – was “as close to perfection” as he’d ever heard the orchestra sound. That this was not hyperbole became clear when the full symphony was released on the in-house record label that the ensemble started during the pandemic.

On Friday, too, the notion of perfection came to mind. The Clevelanders played, as usual, with clarity, poise and adroit balances among the sections, elegance without reticence, urgency without pressure, airiness without weightlessness. But while descriptions of their precision and transparency sometimes make them seem cool, even chilly, this was poignant, humane, truly warm music-making.

The first movement was brisk – as is Welser-Möst’s wont – but easygoing in its phrasing, without exaggeration, even in emphasis. As I felt when I heard this ensemble play Dvorak’s Fifth Symphony here in 2015, there was one foot in aristocratic Vienna, the other in a country meadow; I do not know another American orchestra that lilts with such unforced gracefulness.

Heat radiated off the high strings in the second movement, before softening to a gentleness that surpassed that of the recent recording. The passing of a line among different instruments – cello, flute, clarinet, oboe – was an understated layering of liquidities of different densities.

The Scherzo was lushly garrulous until it relaxed into spacious calm; the fourth movement had the panache of bursts of golden powder. Throughout, Schubert’s huge section repeats weren’t drudgery, but displays of quietly accumulated power, of material subtly yet thoroughly transformed.

Such was the quality of the symphony, and the intensity of the emotions it conjured, that it slightly overshadowed the main event of the weekend: Verdi’s opera “Otello,” which was given as a semi-staged concert on Saturday (and will be repeated this Thursday and Sunday).

The operatic repertory has been a glory of Welser-Möst’s tenure here. The pandemic sadly spiked a run of Berg’s “Lulu,” but “Otello” is a sweeping orchestral showcase. (I won’t soon forget the Chicago Symphony’s ferocious rendition under Riccardo Muti at Carnegie Hall in 2011.)

And the playing was excellent, with attention to detail in moments like the slight wooziness that enters the rhythms as the first-act drinking song grows drunker. The third act progressed toward a finale of controlled nobility; the opening of the fourth was an elegy of mellow, mournful winds, their music seeming to exhale into being taken up by the low strings.

But overall Welser-Möst flew through the score at a clip; coupled with this ensemble’s lithe textures, even at its loudest and most powerful, there was sometimes a sense of skating atop the music. The opera impressed; it did not shock or wound.

In the title role, the tenor Limmie Pulliam had a healthy, attractively grainy tone, with a hint of weeping in it. Once he got past some dropped high notes in “Ora e per semper,” he sang with burnished security, and acted – even in this semi-staged setting – with moving sobriety.

The soprano Tamara Wilson, as Desdemona, gained authority and tonal richness as the performance went on, her high notes strong and clear. But from the start, the baritone Christopher Maltman oozed juicy seductiveness as an imposing Iago.

Jennifer Johnson Cano’s mezzo-soprano was smoothly plangent as Emilia; the tenor Pene Pati was a sweetly ingenuous Cassio. The chorus, directed by Lisa Wong, was far more nuanced than usual in this piece, even while wearing face masks; I heard harmonies in the opening scene that were new to me.

Whatever the quibbles, few ensembles are ready to do Schubert’s Ninth and “Otello” back-to-back with such accomplishment. Part of it is doubtless the enchanted, silvery atmosphere of Severance, but there is always a sense of occasion when this orchestra performs.

Not that everything is perfect. Attendance has been down this season from prepandemic averages, as it has been for many arts institutions; the question is whether those numbers will rebound or settle into a disconcerting new normal.

And while Welser-Möst has filled many important positions over the past few years, there are still a handful of openings, none more conspicuous than the concertmaster seat that has been vacant since William Preucil was fired in 2018 after an investigation revealed he had engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment. The orchestra’s principal trombonist was also fired then, for the same reason; that chair remains empty, too.

But there was nothing to fear this weekend from either of those corners of the ensemble. Peter Otto, the first associate concertmaster, gave a solo in Berg’s “Lyric Suite” – which preceded Schubert on Friday – that had the self-effacing eloquence for which Cleveland is justly renowned. (Solos from this orchestra often, in the best way, do not feel like solos at all.) And in the first movement of the Schubert, the trombones played with an uncanny evocation of doleful distance, as if they were on a nearby hilltop rather than right in front of us.

It speaks to the depth of this extraordinary ensemble’s roster that what should have been its weaknesses ended up as particular strengths. And it was so, so good to be back here.