In the closing Cleveland Orchestra subscription program of the calendar year before the ensemble shifts attention to holiday programs, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider led an evening of music all stemming from the late 19th century. Berlioz’s opera Béatrice et Bénédict, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, would be the last work the composer completed. While the complete opera only infrequently surfaces nowadays, the overture functions well as a standalone work. Featherlight textures were quickly rallied to great vigor and slower, contrasting sections showed the winds in particularly fine form, in a stylish, well-crafted reading of this ebullient curtain-raiser.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Andrew Eccles

Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major served as the evening’s centerpiece with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist, one of the concerto’s finest advocates. Gentle beginnings in the orchestra were echoed in kind by Thibaudet’s crystalline tone, radiating an inimitably Gallic elegance. The first movement was an understated affair, but charmingly so. By contrast, the central Andante had arresting beginnings, brimming with pianistic exoticism and a panoply of strikingly foreign rhythms and harmonies – and from here is where the concerto’s moniker “Egyptian” derives.

Saint-Saëns was an avid traveler, especially fascinated by North Africa, and wrote much of the present work while staying in Luxor. In addition, the wide range of non-Western music on display at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 made an indelible impression on the composer (as it also did on Debussy) and these diverse influences were absorbed into the concerto. Thibaudet drew out otherworldly timbres from the piano, in some cases in imitation of the Javanese gamelan, elsewhere conveying a dramatic sweep in the tradition of the grand Romantic piano concerto. The Molto allegro finale was a wild ride and glittering showpiece, with Thibaudet’s fingers flying over the length of the keyboard with hardly a moment of respite.

Tchaikovsky himself never produced a suite from his ballet Sleeping Beauty, a responsibility which has instead been taken up by a plethora of conductors. Szeps-Znaider offered his take, a 40-minute swath of some eleven excerpts, filling the balance of the evening. The selections were drawn from the prologue and all three acts, presented not in sequential order, but in a manner nonetheless thoughtfully curated, forming a coherent dramatic arc in their own right. The bombastic “Introduction” was certainly attention-grabbing if perhaps a bit overplayed. The harp (Trina Struble) did much to add to the decadence of the orchestration in the “Pas de Six,” as did the lushness of Afendi Yusuf’s clarinet. In the expansive finale to the prologue, searing passions drew a symphonic canvas, detailing the drama even in the absence of a set and dancers.

One was struck by the gracefulness of the “Panorama,” perhaps only outdone by the familiar “Waltz.” The “Pas de Quatre” from the wedding scene was appropriately festive, while the “Finale of Act One” occupied the other end of the spectrum in its brass-heavy tragedy. Szeps-Znaider’s suite closed with the “Grand pas d’Action” from Act 1 – while not the music with which Tchaikovsky envisioned concluding, its powerful chorale and angelic harp made for a fitting apotheosis in of itself, shimmering in orchestral brilliance.