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.

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