Gallic Menu Shows a Match Made in Heaven

United StatesUnited States Messiaen, Saint-Saëns, Franck: Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati. 10.11.12. (RDA)

Messiaen: Les Offrandes Oubliées
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22
Franck: Symphony in D Minor

Tonight’s Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert at Music Hall proved to the capacity audience that it is one of the great orchestral ensembles in America. The rock-solid brass section with its massive sound, the exquisite and precise string playing, the luscious allure of the woodwinds, the dynamic energy of the percussion section—all coalesced into the kind of event that sends one to the dictionary in search of superlatives.

Olivier Messiaen’s devoutly-Catholic mysticism permeates Les Offrandes Oubliées (Forgotten Offerings) featuring long, sustained chords on the strings and a moving, ecstatic stillness. Divided into three sections – “La Croix” (“The Cross”), “Le Peche” (“The Sin”), and “L’Eucharistie” (“The Eucharist”), Messiaen’s triptych bears carefully-considered markings such as “profondément triste” (“deeply sad”), or “extremement lent avec une grande pitié et un grand amour” (“very slowly with deeply felt pity and love”).

Sensitively conducted by Louis Langrée, the CSO’s Designate Music Director, and rapturously played by the Cincinnati musicians, Messiaen’s masterwork conjured up a mood of meditation—albeit harshly broken halfway in the middle section marked “fast, fiercely, desperately, breathlessly,” before the end returns to the serenity of the opening moments.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 was written by the French composer for himself, with the usual fast-slow-fast structure reimagined into an Andante-Scherzo-Allegro format that quickly builds from moderately fast to “hold-on-to-your-hats” fast. The unusual structure and the Tarantella ostinato triplets in the last movement once caused a cynic to quip: “It begins with Bach and it ends with Offenbach.” But this is a major concerto and a terrific vehicle for a pianist of protean skills.

Pianist Cédric Tiberghien played the technically daunting piano part to the hilt, mining the score for its very last ounce of bravura and Gallic elegance. The CSO musicians and fellow Frenchman Langrée supported the soloist wholeheartedly, playfully engaging in dialogue with the pianist in the middle Scherzo, and later maintaining a breakneck speed in the last movement with its spectacular finale. After the concerto, Tiberghien and Langrée charmed the audience with a surprise encore, a piece for piano-four-hands by Brahms.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Cesar Franck wanted to carry French music out of the academic and perfumed cocoon where it had long slept. His Symphony in D Minor is muscular, written in a disciplined, clearly structured manner that evokes (though not mimics) other works of the period by D’Indy, Lalo and Saint-Saëns—all of whom were influenced by Wagner. As played by the CSO musicians and Langrée the symphony became the high point of the evening, with English hornist Christopher Philpotts producing ravishing sounds in the second movement’s pastoral solos. Using no score, Maestro Langrée assertively built Franck’s three movements to a sonorous climax.

Langrée will be at the podium again this season on November 17, when he will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, and next season he returns to be in residence in Cincinnati. The maestro was warmly welcomed by the CSO musicians, who enthusiastically reciprocated the obvious affection and gracious respect he has towards them. At the end, the audience joined them with a standing ovation that went on and on.

In Louis Langrée the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has found a match made in heaven.

Rafael de Acha