At the moment, there's a certain frisson to any performance of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben by the Cleveland Orchestra under its music director Franz Welser-Möst.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer's music critic, Donald Rosenberg, was shunted off his duties after penning harsh reviews of Welser-Möst's performances. He went to court in protest and a few weeks ago he lost. Strauss's tone poem happens to describe a musical hero's battle with his critics, pitting his swashbuckling might against bickering Beckmessers in the woodwind and "consecutive fifths" (a cardinal sin in academic musical exercises) in the tubas.
The opening took flight with terrific verve, the rhythms taut and galvanised, the phrases springing trampoline-high. The orchestra's tone is sumptuous, the war scene was a knockout, and first horn Richard King and concertmaster William Preucil deserve plaudits for their solos. That formed the climax of this concert in the Lucerne Festival – and if there is a finer concert hall than the Swiss lakeside KKL, in a more wonderful setting, I've yet to see it.
Each year, the festival commissions a new work for the Cleveland Orchestra. This year's was from Toshio Hosokawa. HisWoven Dreams is a musical evocation of the experience of being born. Whether you'd guess this from the music alone without reading the programme note I couldn't say, but it remains fascinating. Richly imagined, featuring surges of intensity and fluctuating power – "storms of amniotic fluid" according to the composer – it involves masterful manipulations of pace and timbre, with a Zen-like sense of meditative focus.
Welser-Möst brought off the Hosokawa splendidly, but the same couldn't wholly be said of the programme's opener, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune: it sounded as if the mythical protagonist had spent too much of his afternoon in the sun and emerged sluggish and occasionally lacking in co-ordination. Welser-Möst may not live up to the nickname he was awarded during his LPO stint 20 years ago, "Frankly Worse than Most"; in the right repertoire, he can be Rather Better than Some. But uncertain ensemble in the Debussy, some scrambled and sour moments in the Strauss and Welser-Möst's oddly diffident platform manner took off a little shine.