Chamayou makes impressive Cleveland debut with Scriabin rarity

Cleveland Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Bertrand Chamayou, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 28, 2017

Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op. 20
Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, Rhenish

After opening the Summers@Severance season with a bread-and-butter all-Beethoven program, the Cleveland Orchestra turned to less familiar repertoire for the second installment.  Two firsts for the orchestra were to be had in the opening selection of Scriabin’s youthful piano concerto: it was a vehicle for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of the French pianist Bertrand Chamayou, as well as the inaugural performance of the work in the ensemble’s century-long history.  At the podium was Susanna Mälkki, a dynamic podium presence who never fails to strike me in her attention to color and nuance (and parenthetically, this was right on the heels of her memorable performance I caught in Chicago last month).

Bertrand Chamayou (c) Marco Borggreve - Warner Classics 2
Bertrand Chamayou, photo credit Marco Borggreve

The Scriabin piano concerto is firmly in the grand Romantic tradition, in no way anticipatory of the revolutionary atonality the composer’s works would soon embrace.  That being said, it’s a relatively compact work, the three movements cumulatively clocking in at under a half hour, and tends towards restraint over bombast.  Opening with solo passages for the horn and clarinet, the wistful piano entrance piano entrance was unmistakably Chopinesque, displaying the influence of Scriabin’s muse at the time, and later countered by a more jestful theme.  Arching melodies swelled in the orchestra, Mälkki skillfully balancing the dense orchestration with the solo piano, and movement built to a grandiose conclusion.

The central movement was cast in variations, an unusual form for Scriabin.  Serene strings introduced the theme, while the first variation was marked by delicate filigree in the piano in dialogue with the clarinet.  More animated material was to be had in the following variation, evidencing Chamayou’s considerable technical arsenal, while the third variation – and heart of the movement – was a somber funeral march, grounded in the piano’s lowest registers.  A dramatic flourish in the piano opened the finale, Scriabin at his most extrovert.  This gave way to a deeply passionate melody, of the kind one could easily mistake for the composer’s fellow Moscow Conservatory student Rachmaninov, and a display of blistering virtuosity and rich orchestral texture continued unabated through the resounding final chord.

Schumann’s Rhenish symphony made for a fitting counterpart to the concerto.  The opening movement was majestic, the orchestral lines flowing together as one to bring to life the work’s namesake river, and it exuded the heroic potential of its key of E flat major, by no coincidence the same key as Beethoven’s Eroica.  Widely-spaced strings characterized the scherzo, as if gently gliding along the water, and a choir of gentle winds highlighted the slow movement, later contrasted by the lushness of the strings.  The crux of the symphony – and where Schumann breaks from his classical forebears – is in the penultimate movement, a stirring brass chorale, presaging the awe-inspiring solemnity of Bruckner (who was also quite fond of the movement in question’s marking of feierlich).  While not without some unfortunate flubs in the brass, the effect was nonetheless imposing; the finale, however, was of unfettered jubilation, offering spirited playfulness to counter the stoicism of the preceding.

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