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July 28, 2010

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.

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:55 AM | | Comments (6)


As someone who spent 5 years in Cleveland going to the orchestra on a regular basis, the rule of thumb was when Maestro Welser-Most was accompanying singers, the performance more than likely went well. I remember vividly a fantastic Mendelssohn Elias with Thomas Quastoff, a stunning performance of Dvorak's opera Rusalka in concert, and an amazing performance of Das Lied von der Erde. However, there was also the most excrutiating Tchaikovsky 6th I've ever listened to in my life, and the most depressing evening ever spent in a concert hall, a horrible and rushed Mahler 2. He is not a world class maestro and Cleveland deserves better. Unfortunately they keep extending his contract. It's a messy situation.

Thank you, Tim, for running updates on Rosenberg's case. I can't help but feel sympathetic toward Rosenberg, but I don't feel like I really have an affinity one way or the other, since I've never listened to a Welser-Most recording--I've just heard many of the same things about his conducting that you have. Most of which isn't favorable to Welser-Most.

Interesting about your "Liebestod" comparison, though. I may have to check out Measha's Wesendonck Lieder based on your finding.

I should have added that most of today's conductors would fail a comparison test with the greats of yesteryear. But I did find it interesting that my random little search turned up de Sabata, who's best known for conducting Italian, not German, opera. TIM

Come on, de Sabata was always known as a marvelous Wagner conductor. If, for example, we look at the NY Philharmonic search database, we'll see that he conducted more Wagner than all the works by Italian composers combined.

Plus de Sabata left what is for me one the three greatest recordings of Tristan, albeit a live one - the other two being Furtwangler's and, dare I say it, Karajan's live from Bayreut (yes, I also do enjoy Bohm and others.)

As for FVM, I do agree with B.G.: he's indeed marvelous in vocal stuff. Let's not forget that his directorship of the Zurich opera is, by any measure, a success, and that in the recent seasons he lead most of the important premieres at the Vienna State Opera. I also like some of the Bruckner he conducts, and also some of the Strauss waltzes. I am certainly looking forward to the New Year's Concert.

And, technically, under his baton, the Cleveland Orchestra sounds as marvelous as ever. Plus the Miami residency seems to be a success - could this be a model for the future for other orchestras?

But yes, FVM is often prosaic. He took the Tchaikovsky 6 on tour and while it wasn't as bad as what B.G. heard in Cleveland, it certainly wasn't one of the great versions of the piece, even in comparisson with the maestros of today. And his Mozart was equally boring!

But then, I also find Christoph von Dohnányi boring most of the time, and Donald Rosenberg praised him...

I misspelled "Bayreuth". Sorry for that...

Why reduce this to Welser-Most's conducting of Wagner? I haven't been following these arguments as regularly as I should, but I had understood that Rosenberg was moved by the newspaper mainly because of a problem of Rosenberg misquoting word-for-word translations of a Welser-Most interview given in German in Switzerland. As a professionl translator and researcher in languages, I was appalled at such ignorance. It was similar to the ignorance which mistakenly made Gérard Depardieu out to be a rapist in the early 1990s. Such inattention to problems of language I would definitely count as a grave professional fault, to translate word-for-word from the French.

I heard the Cleveland Orchestra with Welser-Most conducting in May, 2011, in Carmel, IN. A lack-luster performance at best. Colorless and non-emotive. Low energy. Compared to the Orchestra's Golden Years under Szell, this incarnation is disappointing to say the least.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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