Pairing style and substance in Cleveland with Britten and Ravel

United StatesUnited States In Focus / Episode Ten, Style & Craft: Frank Rosenwein (oboe), Carolyn Gadiel Warner (piano), Strings of the Cleveland Orchestra / Vinay Parameswaran (conductor). Previously recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland (9.3 and 8-9.4.2021) and reviewed as a video stream. (MSJ)

Vinay Parameswaran and strings of the Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

Ravel – Sonatine for Oboe and Piano (arr. David Walter)

BrittenVariations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge is the work that brought the 24-year-old English composer to the world stage. It was done as a commission on short notice for a premiere at the Salzburg Festival, but that pressure crystallized Britten’s creativity. He sought to honor his composition teacher Frank Bridge by making variations on a theme from one of Bridge’s string quartets. Happily, we already had the context set up for us last season in Cleveland, when music director Franz Welser-Möst programmed Bridge’s tone poem cycle, The Sea. In this Britten piece, directed by the orchestra’s talented associate conductor Vinay Parameswaran, we get to hear how Bridge’s student took his teacher’s pastoral ideas to places Bridge never dreamed of.

Bridge’s pleasant theme melts away as Britten explores extrapolations that take the rather simple material on vivid flights of imagination. First, there is an uneasy adagio, followed by a bumptious march, a winsome romance, a humorous ‘aria Italiana’, a tartly sardonic bourrée classique, a wickedly sarcastic Viennese waltz, a nervous moto perpetuo, a Mahlerian funeral march, a shadowy chant and a large final section that includes a brilliant fugue.

Parameswaran is a reserved and classical conductor and not prone to extremes, but he recognizes that the nature of this piece is one of high contrast. To that end, he paces the aria Italiana at an exhilarating clip, while taking the following bourrée spaciously enough for the players, including concertmaster Peter Otto in his solo, to really dig into the piquant dissonances. He balanced the humor and the growing spookiness of the waltz well, allowing the players to shine as the piece began to grow more serious. He also smartly let the spidery pianissimo tremolando scales near the end of the waltz fall where they may instead of brow-beating the players for precision. Precision might ape the printed page, but the unease of the shimmery passage is far more important.

The players make full use of the dramatic glissandos which pull the tension tighter in the funeral march that follows. It is amazing how, in just a few variations, Britten goes from light comedy to full-blown tragedy, and this performance is with it every step. The penultimate chant variation could have been a little more inward, but Parameswaran took it straightforwardly, presumably to begin the transition back to the lively events of the fugal finale which goes at a suitably brisk clip here.

Britten’s last twist is to bring a new level of emotional intensity after the original theme returns majestically, swamping the fugue and boosting the final pages up to a profound sense of relieved tension. It is a fine performance, and one of the best things Parameswaran has done in Cleveland.

Arrangements can be dicey affairs, but sometimes an arrangement works so well, one’s jaw can only drop. I have heard Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine for Piano for many years, and perfectly happily. But as arranged by David Walter for oboe and piano it becomes an instant classic of the double reed repertory. That arrangement is relatively new, according to Cleveland Orchestra principal oboist Frank Rosenwein, who introduces the program, noting that the piece was only prepared in this version about a decade ago.

It turns out that it is a brilliant idea to transfer some of Ravel’s sparkling high-register melodic material to the oboe, which in Rosenwein’s hands can sustain notes like an opera singer. It is surprising that the music transfers so well, because Ravel was acutely sensitive to timbre, and he wrote the Sonatine to exploit the relatively quick decay of the piano. But it turns out that the melodies of the piece are so intriguing they take on a new life when they are sustained and shaped with such elegance and subtlety, particularly in the menuet which becomes more shaded and melancholy with a sustaining instrument. The entire Cleveland Orchestra is an ensemble of stars, but this performance demonstrates why Rosenwein is one of the brightest lights of the group, communicating the human side of his instrument while having virtuoso firepower ready where needed. He is ably joined by keyboard player Carolyn Gadiel Warner on the piano, a player with the unusual distinction of holding not one but two positions in the Cleveland Orchestra as both a violinist and keyboard player.

The recording of the Britten captures the essence of the orchestra’s strings in Severance Hall nicely, while the Ravel is perhaps a shade too closely recorded, forcing the sense of intimacy which these players can achieve regardless of the size of the hall. But it is still high-quality sound. The program also contains several bonus videos where Rosenwein and Parameswaran talk about their preparation, background and teaching activities.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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