Fabien Gabel Leads Cleveland Orchestra in a Schmitt Rarity

United StatesUnited States Schmitt, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel: Juho Pohjonen (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Fabien Gabel (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. 19.8.2017. (MSJ)

Schmitt – The Haunted Palace

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.1 in D-flat major, Op.10

Debussy – Iberia (from Images)

Ravel – Bolero

Results matter. So what if I closed my eyes at times during the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Iberia so that I wouldn’t be distracted by conductor Fabien Gabel’s sweeping gestures—he delivered the goods.

His performance of the second of Claude Debussy’s Images for orchestra was bright in color, deftly layered in texture, and bold in phrasing. No misty impressionism here, but rather a vital and confident clarity that showed this young French conductor, making his debut with the orchestra, knew exactly what he wanted. Perhaps the performance could have been a little more in-the-moment if Gabel were less choreographed and flying more on the cusp, but it is hard to argue with the fine and idiomatic results, reminiscent of Monteux or Previn. Daniel McKelway’s important clarinet solo was bright and riveting.

Gabel threw himself wholeheartedly into collaboration with guest soloist Juho Pohjonen for a buoyant account of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1. Pianist and conductor kept a close eye on each other to coordinate the numerous tempo changes, which they did flawlessly. Pohjonen played with brilliance and flair, without short-changing the insistent lyricism. His attacks had power, but each note was sculpted so that there was always plenty of air. Prokofiev’s modernist strutting would lose its edge if done too lightly, but Pohjonen found that sweet spot, honoring the composer’s intention to be a little spiky, while revealing the heart beneath the glitter. It’s a pity that no encore was offered, for the crowd clearly wanted one, bringing the pianist back for numerous bows.

The most intriguing fare was a rare outing of Florent Schmitt’s The Haunted Palace (Le Palais hanté), a “symphonic etude” inspired by the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe. Schmitt was a fine composer of the same period as Debussy and Ravel, but is mostly forgotten today. It is rare to hear any of his works now, at least in the United States, aside from once in a great while, his colorful The Tragedy of Salome.

But The Haunted Palace is almost never played. Though no forgotten masterpiece, it was nonetheless well worth reviving, just to deepen the listener’s grasp of the early twentieth-century French style.

It’s not a literal tone painting of Poe’s poem, which progresses from joy to the eclipse of madness. Schmitt starts with the decay in place (led by Kevin Schempf’s unsettling bass clarinet solo), then flashes back to better times with a gentle, lyrical section. From there, the darkness returns and accelerates into a mad whirl in the closing pages. Gabel made more sweeping gestures than needed, but the performance was effective—a different flavor of French impressionism than the usual suspects.

In over 30 years of concertgoing, I have avoided hearing Ravel’s Bolero live. “Dislike” is too strong a word. But Ravel’s strangely obsessive experiment in minimalism is too often treated as something like pops concert light fare, a showpiece, a lowbrow chestnut not to be taken too seriously. I have heard dozens of recordings, but only actually like a handful.

Intrigued by the Schmitt, I decided to take a chance on Gabel, a conductor whose work I had not previously heard. He did not disappoint, though Gabel’s back-row-pleasing acrobatics made me nervous. Sure enough, Gabel knew exactly what to do with the early pages of Bolero: set the tempo with Mark Damoulakis’ rock-solid snare drum rhythm, then simply get out of the way and let the soloists characterize their parts. Particularly of note were Joshua Smith’s quiet yet richly seductive opening flute solo, Jeffrey Rathbun’s warm oboe, Robert Woolfrey’s cool B-flat clarinet, Daniel McKelway’s masterful control of the keening E-flat clarinet, Joseph Lulloff’s jazzy soprano and tenor saxophone, and Massimo La Rosa’s aristocratic trombone. All played gloriously as each entered first one by one, then in groups, growing Ravel’s mad crescendo from a tremulous start to a full-throated roar.

Gabel chose a shrewd pace—perhaps around sixteen minutes—and then let the piece grow slowly but inexorably more powerful, running the full dynamic range from whispering opening to resounding collapse at the end. The brief moment of stunned silence before the audience roared showed that the conductor and the orchestra had rightly hewed to Ravel’s esthetic line: Bolero is not a happy piece. But a perceptive performance in an ideal acoustic is a happy occasion, and the large audience was delighted by the catharsis.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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