Dramatic evidence arrives in time for Rosenberg, Cleveland Orchestra, Plain Dealer trial
The extraordinary trial that pits former Cleveland Plain Dealer Don Rosenberg against his employer and the Cleveland Orchestra is now in its third week. At about this point, if this were an episode of the classic "Perry Mason" TV series, Paul Drake would be entering the courtroom and approaching Perry with a discreet little package.
Perry would take a brief look inside and the faintest of smiles would cross his face as he turned to the judge and said, "Your honor, new evidence has just been brought to my attention, and, if it please the court, I think we should all listen to it now."
He'd pull a Deutsche Grammophon CD out of the envelope, put it onto a player, hit the "play" button, and, before Hamilton Burger could get a huffy objection out, the court would hear the Prelude and "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" contained on a just-released recording by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most.
Fifteen-and-a-half minutes later, Rosenberg would win his case.
OK, back to reality. The decidedly pedestrian performance of that glorious music from "Tristan" underlines what I think this sad trial is all about. Seems to me that Rosenberg simply expects more of a conductor, especially one given the reins of one of the world's greatest orchestras. But Welser-Most and his supporters think he's just fine all the time, and shouldn't have to read so many negative reviews. A newspaper editor agreed and reassigned Rosenberg. Hence, the law suit.
People can argue all the want -- and they will -- about an employer's jurisdiction over employees and about an arts organization's right to challenge a critic. But the issue of musical standards is not so easily dismissed.
I played through the new all-Wagner recording curious to hear Welser-Most and the Clevelanders in music that ought to easily inspire compelling results. I wasn't so compelled. What really stopped me cold was
the conductor's metronomic, bloodless account of those "Tristan" selections. The "Liebestod," in particular, stays earthbound in his hands, thanks to a brisk tempo so rigid for long stretches that it sounds closer to a march than a "love death."
This morning, I wanted to try another recording of the "Tristan" music for comparison. I thought I should try to find one I didn't know well or hadn't heard, so it would be even fairer (no point in stacking anyone today up against, say, Furtwangler, for example). I settled on a disc containing Berlin Philharmonic recordings from 1939 conducted by Victor de Sabata, a CD I didn't even remember owning.
The "Tristan" Prelude and "Liebestod" happened to be included. To begin with, de Sabata takes at least three minutes longer with the music. But it isn't the added spaciousness alone that makes the difference. (I don't always have to hear this bit of Wagner slow; I can be very happy with faster tempos that still offer expressive nuance.) What de Sabata does is amazing, allowing the music to expand and contract in subtle ways that make everything sound fresh and involving. The "love death" is imbued with such emotional force that you can sense every breath and torment of Isolde's plight.
In short, the performance spoke to me. Welser-Most's didn't. It was the same on track after track until, I hasten to add, I reached the "Wesendonck Lieder" included on this new release, with soprano Measha Brueggergosman as the radiant soloist. Here, Welser-Most reveals admirable sensitivity and breadth, and the ensemble ensemble responds very beautifully. For that matter, the orchestra is in strong shape throughout.
The rest of the disc, though, just leaves me cold or lukewarm. Being underwhelmed by Welser-Most's talent is not such an uncommon reaction in the larger music world, by the way. But I guess expressing it too often can get you into a lot of trouble in Ohio.