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.

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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

Piquant Poulenc and rapturous Rachmaninov from Denève and the Clevelanders

Cleveland Orchestra
Stéphane Denève, conductor
Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
March 25, 2018

Poulenc: Concert champêtre, FP 49
 Encore:
 Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in D major, Kk. 96
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Stéphane Denève, poised to succeed David Robertson as music director of the St. Louis Symphony, is a conductor with a magnificent ear for orchestral color. This paid its dividends during his lustrous Cleveland Orchestra program, comprised of a pair of works which could hardly have been more disparate despite being composed only two decades apart: Poulenc’s rarely heard Concert champêtre, and Rachmaninov’s evergreen Second Symphony.

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Stéphane Denève, photo credit Nobuo Mikawa

The Concert champêtre is an odd yet enjoyable concoction, with last weekend’s performances counting as The Cleveland Orchestra’s first traversal of the work. It’s at its core something of an anachronism with the full resources of the modern orchestra supporting a harpsichord soloist, the latter serving as a platform for the Cleveland Orchestra debut of Jory Vinikour. Given the harpsichord’s limited projection, some amplification was necessary, although matters were still occasionally muted, especially when pitted against the sheen of the very fine brass section. Poulenc wrote the work in the late 1920s for Wanda Landowska, perhaps the first modern-day advocate of the harpsichord. It opened with piquant sonorities, bright and sweetly dissonant, and very much of a Stravinskyian neoclassicism. More playful material ensued, which Vinikour gave with high spirits and abandon.

A melancholic sicilienne served as the central slow movement, with the harpsichord most often relegated to an arpeggiated accompaniment, save for a striking passage of rumbling trills in its bass register. The finale opened with a passage for the soloist, the concerto’s most patent Baroque pastiche, sounding as if it was a page out of Scarlatti. A nostalgic evocation of the opening movement was later heard, and in spite of the work’s outward brilliance, it took a much darker turn at the very end. For his encore, Vinikour appropriately selected a Scarlatti sonata (Kk. 96 in D major) – a virtuosic affair, replete with the requisite hand-crossings. 

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Jory Vinikour, photo credit Nuccio di Nuzzo

There’s little to say in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that hasn’t already been said many times, yet Denève’s reading more than justified a further hearing. Somber cellos initiated the work, soon to be answered by the reassuring warmth of the horns and a lush melody in the violins. The texture built to heart-wrenching swells with conductor and orchestra seemingly in no hurry, savoring the moment while nonetheless skirting indulgence. Powerhouse climaxes were scaled in the development, an extensive exercise in large-scale architecture, with Denève (fortunately) electing for the uncut text.

The Allegro molto was marked by a mercurial vigor and blazing kinetic energy, in due course overturned by an intensely lyrical theme (which, incidentally, I can no longer dissociate from the film Birdman). I’ve long been looking forward to the opportunity to hear newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf tackle the extended solo in the heavenly Adagio, and to say he didn’t disappoint would be a colossal understatement. The orchestra was in fine form in the movement’s outpourings of sumptuous beauty with the high-reaching solos of concertmaster Peter Otto also of note, and the swashbuckling finale brought the work to an enormously satisfying close.