BRAHMS SYMPHONY NO. 1
Welser-Möst's nimble alternation between smoothness and a sound that's as "sharp-edged as a skyscraper" (The Telegraph) keeps the ensemble and the audience figuratively on its toes.
If the Cleveland Orchestra is the "aristocrat among American orchestras" (The Telegraph), then its sovereign, Franz Welser-Möst, rules his subjects with a velvet glove, and not an iron fist. Indeed, velvet and silk keep showing up in descriptions of the Clevelanders' sound under its principal conductor. It is Welser-Möst's nimble alternation between smoothness and a sound that's as "sharp-edged as a skyscraper" (The Telegraph after the Brahms First at the orchestra's London Proms concert) that keeps the ensemble and the audience figuratively on its toes. The now world-renowned conductor prefers understatement to bravado, enticement to command. And after just a few minutes of watching his orchestra at work, it becomes clear that they're ready and willing to follow the baton of their musical field marshal from ppp lyricism to fff tempests and everything in between!
It took Brahms many years to write his First Symphony, which was ultimately a blessing, since he composed two beautiful movements which he then rejected, but later incorporated in his Piano Concerto in D minor and his German Requiem. The first sketches seem to have been made in the 1850s, but he continued working on it until 1876, after he had gathered enough experience with orchestral writing so as to confidently emerge from the shadow of Beethoven.
From the very first soaring melody and the pounding, insistent timpani, the symphony clearly declares its independence from Beethoven, but also from Brahms' revered Schumann and Schubert. From small cells of indistinct melodic material, the composer spins brief melodies that he will later masterfully interweave. This is once again Welser-Möst's moment, his chance to let Brahms' "mellow, silky sound" (The Guardian) unfurl about the stage of London's Royal Albert Hall during one of the prestigious BBC Promenade Concerts. This yearly "marketplace" for the best orchestras in Britain and the world is one of the great musical events held every summer in London, when the majestic, elliptical hall influenced by Greco-Roman arenas is often filled to a capacity crowd of over 5500.