Pintscher and Gerstein join Cleveland Orchestra in big-boned Rachmaninov, Bartók

Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 1, 2018

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
 Encore:
 Chopin: Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42
Bartók: The Wooden Prince, Op. 13, Sz. 60

A return appearance from former Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow Matthias Pintscher is always a welcome sight at Severance Hall. Pintscher’s program was comprised of two large-scale works, both from Eastern Europe, and both from the first decades of the 20th-century. Rachmaninov’s enduring Third Piano Concerto made for a meaty first half with Gilmore Artist Award winner Kirill Gerstein at the keyboard. The opening melody was haunting in its monastic simplicity, and never sentimentalized. Gerstein took matters at a fairly brisk tempo – at times feeling a bit rushed, but he always maintained a certain elegance. His commanding tone and massive dynamic range made the lasting impact, however – an unflagging intensity which paid its dividends especially in the cadenza. Gerstein elected for the larger of the two the composer supplied; beginning with a rumbling in the bass it built to immense power. The cadenza quite ingeniously also served as the movement’s recapitulation; without much left to say after that monstrosity the movement ended quietly, almost impressionistically.

Mathias Pintscher by Roger Mastroianni 1
Mathias Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A doleful lament marked the slow movement, encouraged by the choir of winds and long-bowed strings. Gerstein’s line was initially distressed but soon gave way to display his lyrical gift, and a multitude of moods were traversed, in turns scherzo-like, impassioned, and the sudden yet seamless transition to the finale. A vigorous march, bright and brilliant, offered no respite for Gerstein’s prodigious stamina and technical arsenal, up to and including the triumphant major-key ending in cascading glory. An encore was nearly demanded; Gerstein obliged with a Chopin waltz of effortless elegance.

Bartók’s The Wooden Prince, in only its third Cleveland Orchestra performance, was a foray into much less familiar territory. A one-act ballet spanning the continuum of nearly an hour, it is scored for an astonishingly large orchestra (some highlights: quadruple woodwinds – including two contrabassoons and two saxophones – an extensive percussion section, and four-hands celesta). The work began with a mysterious sounding drone (perhaps echoing Wagner’s Das Rheingold), firmly in a late-Romantic idiom. In many ways, this is a work in the tradition of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking scores for the Ballets Russes, with the intensity of some passages rivaling even that of the Rite.

The story of The Wooden Prince is a bit convoluted, but certain instruments representing specific characters served as a loose roadmap. The sweetly playful tone Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet deftly brought the princess’s coquettishness to life, and a folk melody in the low strings that would later resurface was quite striking. The dance between the princess and titular wooden prince (much to the chagrin of the real prince) was given with a relentless drive and folksy authenticity, with clever scoring emphasizing the prince’s wooden composition – castanets, xylophone, and col legno strings. Robert Walters’ fine English horn solo brought forth an apotheosis, buttressed by heavenly high strings (to my ears, another nod to Wagner, namely the prelude to Lohengrin). A happily-ever-after ending was achieved, marked by peaceful resolution and a sparkling celesta. Like the Rachmaninov that preceded, this was a supreme test of stamina and energy which Pintscher and the orchestra surmounted admirably. By happy coincidence (or smart programming), those interested in Pintscher’s other persona as a composer will have a chance to hear one of his works next week.

Kirill GersteinPhoto: Marco Borggreve
Kirill Gerstein, photo credit Marco Borggreve
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Welser-Möst explores Prokofiev symphonies with a Bartók centerpiece

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano
Severance Hall
September 30, 2018

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25, Classical
Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Sz. 95
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 44

Franz Welser-Möst has expressed an interest in devoting part of the next few seasons to exploring works – particularly those lesser known – of both Prokofiev and Schubert. The first installment came last weekend, with a program bookended by Prokofiev symphonies. Of Prokofiev’s seven works in the genre, only the First and the Fifth are played with any regularity, the remainder being brushed to the periphery. While the remaining five are admittedly somewhat uneven in quality, an opportunity to discover them – particularly at the level of playing witnessed over the weekend – is emphatically welcomed.

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Yefim Bronfman, photo credit Oded Antman

Familiar territory opened the program, however, with the composer’s First Symphony, the so-called Classical for its patent inspiration to Haydn but as through the wit of a 20th-century modernist. It opened with a burst of energy capped by its classical charm, with transparent textures balancing a classical economy and Prokofiev’s piquant harmonies. The Larghetto was gentle and untroubled, evidencing a side of the composer wholly different than the enfant terrible as he is often characterized. The gavotte glanced back in time even further with its roots in the Baroque; here a stately theme was spiked with sweet dissonances, a creation that must have satisfied the composer as he re-used the material in Romeo and Juliet. Although I did find the flutes to be a bit overzealous, the dynamics in the movement’s conclusion were brought down to a whisper, setting the stage for the high-spirited finale.

The rarely-heard Third Symphony closed the afternoon, with the orchestra blossoming substantially, no longer in classical proportions for this daunting, unwieldy work. Some its material was taken from the composer’s ill-fated opera The Fiery Angel, here completely reimagined as a symphony (the Fourth Symphony was also based on material from a stage work, namely The Prodigal Son). The clangorous opening movement was an affair of overwhelmingly dense texture, in some semblance of sonata form, difficult to follow yet the orchestra had a keen sense of its architecture. Striking orchestrations yielded unforgiving sonorities, and matters closed with an extended passage in the contrabassoon leading down to the grave.

A strained wistfulness opened the Andante, less unrelenting than the previous but still filled with a pervasive unease. There were notable solo contributions from concertmaster Peter Otto and clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, and eerie glissandos added to the restlessness. The third movement overflowed with a motoric drive and bizarre effects, not the least of which were the rapid yet quiet glissandos that dotted the score’s dense pages. A more measured B section offered momentary respite, only for matters to end with an eruption in the brass. The finale was shrouded in the darkness of the low brass, merciless in its shrill bombast inexorably leading to a crashing ending.

Situated between the two symphonies was Bartók’s second piano concerto, a formidable work notorious for its technical demands, here conquered by one its greatest champions, Yefim Bronfman (incidentally, the last soloist to perform the work here was Lang Lang who graced the same stage during the previous night’s gala). The opening flourish saw Bronfman in counterpoint with the brass, and the pianist delivered with a kinetic drive, this work ideal for his supersized virtuosity and steel-fingered playing. The movement continued apace with relentlessness but yet a sheer brilliance of sound, and Bronfman was in fine balance with his orchestral colleagues, never at the risk of getting swallowed by their expansiveness.

Plaintive strings – their first appearance – opened the central movement, sounding almost incorporeal after the mechanistic physicality of the preceding. A simple, direct melody in the piano offered utter clarity of tone, while the contrasting Presto was rapid and unsettling. The slow passage returned, filled with spectral trills, evidencing Bartók’s idiosyncratic “night music.” A bass drum initiated the finale, and matters exploded with a nervous energy, dashing any hopes of a peaceful conclusion – and Bronfman’s flurry of double octaves had to be seen to be believed.