United States Ravel: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), The Cleveland Orchestra / Matthias Pintscher (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. 22.2.2018. (MSJ)
Ravel – Suite from Mother Goose; Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand; Daphnis and Chloé
In years of listening to classical recordings and attending concerts, one must inevitably face make-or-break moments. Having heard Ravel’s complete ballet score Daphnis and Chloé a number of times over the years without feeling compelled, I decided that a live experience might make it finally click. I enjoy the second suite Ravel arranged from the ballet (the closing fifteen minutes of the fifty-five minute whole), and have a passionate love for much of Ravel’s other music.
But despite the flat-out brilliant performance by Mattias Pintscher and the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, the complete ballet wasn’t persuasive. Maybe it’s one too many harp glissandos (or maybe thirty too many), or the faux-Mediterranean art deco languor that is basically an indulgent exercise in trying to delay the cadence ending a musical phrase, or maybe it’s just that the piece only barely provides a glimpse of Ravel’s dark depths. Whatever the case, I can get all I need of that flavor from the Suite No.2.
Pintscher and the orchestra gave an atmospheric, gleaming presentation that proved its value as a showpiece of masterful orchestration. My lack of enthusiasm is about the piece itself, and not the performance, which was spectacular. This program was originally to be conducted by the now-disgraced Charles Dutoit, revered for his sense of style in French music. Pintscher, a composer as well as conductor, made no attempt to imitate Dutoit’s elegant manner, but rather approached the score from a composer’s point of view, examining Ravel’s imaginative instrumental strands and deploying them with relish.
In my review of Pintscher’s concert last year with the orchestra, I noted that his Debussy sometimes generalized the softer end of the dynamic spectrum. Not here. Ravel’s soundscape was sculpted from barely audible to roaring, with many gradations in between. Pintscher became a sort of ‘super-Pierre Boulez’, leading with all of the analytical clarity of the late French master, yet taking a more interventionist stance in shaping phrasing, to lend a narrative feel.
The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, prepared by Lisa Wong, did exemplary work with the wordless choral contributions. Outstanding solos came from principal flute Joshua Smith and principal oboe Frank Rosenwein, though Ravel’s score gives starring moments to almost every wind instrument, which were gloriously fulfilled here. The percussionists — including a wind machine — shone in the composer’s panoply of color.
Pintscher used the same insightful approach in the much better music of the suite from Ravel’s ballet Mother Goose. Taking nothing for granted, Pintscher rediscovered the magic of Ravel’s meticulous, wondrous score in a way that completely eluded Alan Gilbert when he led the complete ballet score with the orchestra in 2013. While none of Pintscher’s tempos were greatly different from Gilbert’s, the entire fabric came to life in a completely different way. Pintscher made each gesture sound freshly created, and found subtle but convincing ways to bring phrases and colors alive—sometimes with rethought balances, sometimes with a hesitation in tempo. It was a marvelous example of how a composer-conductor can sometimes get deeper into a work than a conductor who doesn’t also write music. Woodwind solos were exquisite throughout, particularly in the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ duet of Afendi Yusuf on clarinet and Jonathan Sherwin on contrabassoon, transfigured by William Preucil’s violin solo that followed.
But there was one more triumph. Jean-Yves Thibaudet is famous for his exquisite poise, but with Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, he demonstrated that he can deliver a primal roar. One of Ravel’s darkest pieces, unsettled and edgy, the orchestra crawls out of the lowest depths before the piano enters. But when it did, Thibaudet was compelling. Interestingly, he had no trouble delivering the sonorous menace, yet he never lost his characteristic glamor, essential for Ravel. Pintscher matched Thibaudet every step of the way, never sanding off the edges of the composer’s aggressive moments, yet keeping the textures glowing and rich, bringing the audience to its feet. As a substantial encore, Thibaudet offered the piano version of Pavane pour une Infante defunte (traditionally translated as Pavane for a Dead Princess, though Pavane for a Long Lost Princess might be more apt).
Mark Sebastian Jordan