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Review: The Unaffected Excellence of the Cleveland Orchestra

Classical music is an art form that can’t help having one foot in the past and an eye on its family tree. You hear about piano teachers who can trace their techniques back to Beethoven, or composers who realize only after the fact that Debussy has crept into their writing. Lineage is crucial; influence, inevitable.

It’s an observation that was made with gentle persuasiveness by the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst, its longtime music director, at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday. With the casual excellence that has made this ensemble, at least on a technical level, the finest in the United States, they assembled movements from Berg’s “Lyric Suite” and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony into a five-section study in juxtapositions.

Versions of this have been done; the conductor Raphaël Pichon and his group, Pygmalion, broke up the “Unfinished” and surrounded it with a sweeping Romantic collage on last year’s album “Mein Traum” — a nod to Schubert’s biography, and to the cultural world in which this work was created. But the musical connections on Wednesday were fewer, and more focused.

Neither the Berg nor the Schubert is whole. The orchestrated form of the “Lyric Suite,” originally for string quartet, contains three of its six sections, and the “Unfinished” was never completed beyond the first two movements. Both products of Vienna, more than a century apart, they nevertheless share a quiet intensity, as well as expressiveness shaded by longing and melancholy. As tends to be the case with pairings like this, Schubert comes out sounding more innovative; and Berg, who here doesn’t write with a wholesale use of dodecaphonic style, more reverential.

In its version for string orchestra — and particularly with five rows of violins on Wednesday — the Berg has an operatic edge, but under the baton of Welser-Möst, an often measured technician, the opening Andante amoroso was smartly balanced rather than exploited for dramatic effect. He continued into the first movement of the Schubert without pause, carrying the previous work’s subtle momentum through the symphony’s flowing melodies and the soft syncopations of its not-quite-waltzing second subject. Heard so closely with the “Lyric Suite,” the development stood out for its flashes of the future: harmonic language that would flourish at the height of Romanticism.

It wasn’t so jarring, then, to return to the Berg — its whispering Allegro misterioso here like a distant and distorted memory emerging into consciousness, its quietness befitting the second movement of the Schubert, which ended with a halo of serenity. But Berg had the last word with his Allegro appassionato, seeming to make explicit the pervasive yearning of Schubert and take its Romantic sentiment to a breaking point. Like the symphony, however, it ended in sustained stillness.

The program featured a rarity in Schubert’s Mass in E flat, performed with five vocal soloists and members of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.Credit…Chris Lee

For the concert’s second half — Schubert’s Mass in E flat, a wellspring of beauty that is bafflingly underperformed in the United States — the stage was drastically more populated with the addition of five vocal soloists and members of the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, an all-volunteer ensemble that behaves like an entirely professional one. Yet, in a miracle characteristic of the Clevelanders, this work had the sense of awe baked into its scale but the clarity of chamber music: the Latin text intelligible despite face coverings throughout the choir, the melodic line traveling with ease among the instruments.

It’s not until the “Et incarnatus est” section of the Credo that the soloists enter (with a songlike theme of delicate longing that all but prefigures the aria “Nuit d’ivresse” from Berlioz’s “Les Troyens”). These roles, rarely employed throughout the Mass, were luxuriously cast: the tenors Julian Prégardien and Martin Mitterrutzner, the soprano Joélle Harvey, the mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman and the bass-baritone Dashon Burton. But they were also artfully indistinct, behaving with a unified vision that gave way to egoless balance.

The piece was not without its grandeur. Wednesday’s Sanctus was one of divine wonderment; the Agnus Dei resonated from the lower strings with the richness of an organ. But the “dona nobis pacem” of the final bars, begun at a fortissimo, quickly calmed to a glowing piano. The concert, as much as it was a web of connections, also made the argument that music doesn’t need a showy climax to win over an audience. And neither does this orchestra.

Cleveland Orchestra

Performed on Wednesday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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