The menu for both of the Cleveland Orchestra’s proms with their music director, Franz Welser-Möst, followed the same plan: the UK premiere of a major work by Jörg Widmann, the orchestra’s former composer-in-residence, between substantial slices of Brahms. The first concert paired Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture with his first symphony; the second began with his Tragic Overture and ended with the second symphony, but the audience was disappointingly small: the Albert Hall was barely half full for what was a rare London appearance by one of the world’s unquestionably great orchestras.
Welser-Möst’s Brahms is straightforward, unfussy, slightly detached. His unfolding of the second symphony was less driven than the first had seemed on the radio the previous evening. But with an orchestra whose rounded woodwind and refined strings can turn even a simple D major chord into a thing of glowing beauty, it was never without interest, though there is more introspection to seek out in the slow movement than this performance ever suggested. If it didn’t shed any new light on the work, it presented what we do know in an immaculate and perfectly engineered way.
Widmann’s Teufel Amor is all about immaculate engineering too; he describes it as a symphonic hymn. It was composed in 2009 and inspired by a two-line fragment of Schiller – all that anyone recalled of a hymn the poet and dramatist wrote when he was 22. It’s the starting point for a half-hour arc of music, beginning in the darkest depths of the orchestra and moving through a series of climaxes that seem to get more Mahlerian and Straussian as they go on, until everything ends with questioning uncertainty. All faultlessly plotted and played superbly by the Cleveland Orchestra, but an empty shell – just style and gesture with nothing inside.