What a thrill to hear this, the first Cleveland Orchestra recording for many years, and the first with its music director of now six (!) years. However, I must confess that Welser-Most has not done that much for me over the years. Oh, there have been a few occasions, like his work with the Korngold symphony that I thought outstanding, but other efforts have left me rather cold, and I was not that happy when he took over Cleveland.
That’s all behind us now, and I am happy to say that this release, no less than the magnum opus of the western world, is given a reading of depth and reasoned profundity that not only milks the meaning out of the work, but also renders it enjoyable in a way that a number of other “famous” recordings that try to make every note the ultimate experience in transcendent philosophy fall a little flat. Not that this is completely successful—when we get to the glorious fourth movement I feel that Welser-Most loses a grip on his interpretation and begins to rather cursorily run through the many episodic changes with little or no nuance, not unlike the way Norrington so dogmatically insists on the letter of the law versus its spirit—but yet for the most part the performance is quite beautiful and dramatic, with the conductor very well attuned to the Beethoven message.
Timings usually speak volumes, and the first movement moves at a gracious clip, not rushed, nor unforgiving, nor untidy for that matter, but full of Cleveland lucidity and precision while also establishing an emotional tone for the whole piece. The Scherzo is slower than many on the market, but again the precision and cleanness of line are astonishing. The third movement is moderately taken—certainly there are some more modern readings that are much faster, and definitely many that are much slower, but Welser-Most seems to have stricken a tempo that is just right, not denying the soul-searching elegance of the piece yet refusing to languish in a quicksand of overindulgence.
The singing of the fourth is wonderful, some of the best on record, though Ms. Brueggergosman needs to calm herself a bit, as she tends to dominate the quartet in a way that is not particularly affable, and her top notes near the end are not among the most transitional and easily managed that I have heard. But everyone involved, including the wonderful chorus all give their best for this live performance, and only the accursed applause at the end wreck the thrill of the moment, and that, fortunately, is not too bad.
Alternatives? Of course, hundreds, and I am not about to proclaim this as one of the best ever. But it is one of the recent best for certain, though the Furtwangler Lake Lucerne reading on Music and Arts will always be in the boat headed for my desert island, as will Bernstein/Vienna, 1962 Karajan/Berlin, and among the more recent, Barenboim/Berlin Staatskapelle. Every conductor in the world practically has had a crack at this, and Reiner/Chicago and Stokowski/London will also have pride of place. But this one is special also, and the only regret here is that DGG didn’t surround-sound it. Be that as it may, the sound is still beautifully transparent and warm, and if you decide to purchase it you may do so with confidence and no regrets. Welcome back, Cleveland.
— Steven Ritter