Pintscher Directs an Orchestral Theme of Travel

United StatesUnited States Pintscher, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg, Debussy: Cedric Tiberghien (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Matthias Pintscher (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. 23.2.2017. (MSJ)

Matthias Pintscher conducts the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni, Courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher conducts the Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni (courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra)

Pintscher – Ex Nihilo
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No.5 (‘Egyptian’) in F major Op.103
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony No.2 Op.38
Debussy – La Mer

German composer Matthias Pintscher’s programming choices for this Cleveland Orchestra concert were bold, if elusive. A vague theme of travel emerged, with the explicit help of an encore from guest soloist Cedric Tiberghien, but the outstanding feature was sheer contrast.

The shortest scheduled work was the key to Pintscher’s appearance. Though he frequently conducts, he is best known as a composer, and as such, he made his greatest impact. Ex Nihilo (“Out of nothing”) depicts the composer’s sense of waking up jet-lagged in a hotel room in some unfamiliar place, and gradually getting his bearings as city noises begin to infiltrate.

The beginning emerges from nothingness with spectral sounds: breathing into an alto flute, piano strings manipulated by hand, fragile harmonics on the double bass, tones bent on the harp with a metal pin, and percussion instruments played in unusual ways. Pintscher’s soundscape was intriguing. Without any clear sense of pulse, the sounds seemed oddly familiar but just out of reach.

Before long, sonic constellations grew louder and denser—sort of an avant-garde Bolero, always moving forward yet staying in place, expanding the existing language. There was no sense of arrival, other than the loud gesture at the end. Nonetheless, it was a striking collection of attractively strange, cutting-edge instrumental techniques, evocatively deployed. Pintscher, currently music director of the late Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, is taking up his mentor’s mantle.

To go from that to Saint-Saëns’ final piano concerto was a dizzying shift, and it started unsteadily. After getting the nod from soloist Tiberghien, Pintscher whirled around and started almost without a preparatory gesture, causing a ragged entrance by the winds. Tiberghien, though, showed poise and buoyancy with his first entrance, focusing the performance, though Pintscher’s handling of the orchestra still felt comparatively unleavened. The second movement was better, with the conductor apparently more engaged with the composer’s improvisatory collection of Middle Eastern gestures. Tiberghien made the most of the brilliant and exotic solo part, particularly the movement’s spellbinding close. The finale was light and bright, the pianist’s solos glittering in sharp relief. Warmly applauded, Tiberghien cited the theme of travel and played a mesmerizing encore inspired by a postcard: Debussy’s La puerta del vino.

After intermission came another quantum leap, into Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.2. Much less popular than his first exercise in the form, the second is not encountered often, and indeed this was only the second Cleveland performance. After writing the daring Chamber Symphony No.1 in 1906, Schoenberg started to work on the second, but didn’t return to finish it until the late 1930s, when he was living in southern California after fleeing the Nazis. Pintscher served as passionate advocate, using a full complement of strings to color the dark opening Adagio and power the livelier second movement, but the work is not as compelling as the earlier one. Arguably, the large number of strings bogged down Schoenberg’s already dense textures, which didn’t help the convoluted spiral of the fast movement. Nonetheless, it was worthwhile to take a closer look at the piece.

Afterward, Debussy’s La Mer appeared particularly warm and luminous. The orchestra played attractively, in spite of Pintscher’s jumping around on the podium. For a protege of Boulez, Pintscher is a very physical conductor, playing traffic cop far more than is necessary for an orchestra of Cleveland’s caliber. Though his overall shaping was fine, Pintscher never asked for (and never received) the kind of breathtaking pianissimo that this orchestra provides under music director Franz Welser-Möst. Instead, soft dynamics were generalized. Solo playing among the winds was outstanding during the second movement, where Debussy’s instrumental lines curl around like the wave tips in Hokusai’s famous print (often used as cover art on La Mer recordings).

My favorite moment was near the end, when Pintscher included the disputed brass fanfares over the tremolo strings. The fanfares aren’t in Debussy’s score, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has tracked down their origin, but the passage sounds better with them. Ultimately, La Mer is a stellar repertory favorite, and it made its predictably glorious impact, but despite the programming intrigue, it never popped the way it could.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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