Based on this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert, Matthias Pintscher can take his place with an elite list of composer/conductors from recent decades – Boulez, Adès, John Adams – who are as adept and convincing at conducting the works of others as they are their own. The concert’s diverse program of Pintscher, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg and Debussy was brilliantly realized in its structural and coloristic details, especially with the remarkable piano soloist Cédric Tiberghien in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 5, in F major, Op.103.

Matthias Pintscher © Felix Broede
Matthias Pintscher
© Felix Broede

Pintscher’s own Ex Nihilo (“Out of Nothing”) for chamber orchestra began with the barest whispers of sound in the lowest reaches of the double basses. Other players were called upon to use their instruments in unusual ways, for example the alto flute was played with the performer’s mouth completely over the mouthpiece. The soundscape was dreamlike, raspy, bass-heavy, and rough-textured, with nothing resembling traditional melody or harmony. At about the five-minute point, there was a loud full orchestral interjection, followed by a complex forte passage, including a jazz-like riff in the trumpet, leading to a final earsplitting flourish.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1896 “Egyptian” Concerto was the complete antithesis of Pintscher’s Ex Nihilo. The concerto is full of gracious tunes, sparkling virtuosity and steamy romanticism. Except for a few faux-middle-eastern thematic touches in the second movement, the concerto has nothing to do with Egypt, except that Saint-Saëns largely composed it while on holiday in Luxor.

Cédric Tiberghien was the ideal soloist. The solo part requires not only the technique to toss off cascades of scales and arpeggios with flair and style, but also the ability to play with great delicacy. Tiberghien played with unrelenting virtuosity, but more significant were the colors he coaxed from the piano. Seldom is the piano played so softly, yet with such precision and care in phrasing. Pintscher was a sympathetic accompanist, managing the balances between piano and orchestral, sometimes merging the piano into the texture, and other times clearly delineating soloist and ensemble. The “Egyptian” is perhaps not at the top of the heap of the concerto repertoire, but this performance made a convincing argument for the work.

Tiberghien returned for an encore, Claude Debussy’s La puerta del Vino from the Preludes, Book II. The pianist evoked the Spanish landscape, again creating subtle colors above the underlying habanera rhythm, rarely reaching above a quite soft dynamic range. Tiberghien astonished with the beauty of his piano tone.

For audience members who quake at the name Arnold Schoenberg, fearsome atonalist, that composer’s Chamber Symphony no. 2, Op.38, might be a pleasant surprise. Begun in 1906, completed in 1916, and revised in 1939, the work is in Schoenberg’s early, late Romantic style, with free-floating chromaticism. Tonality holds on by a thread, but even when Schoenberg revised the work, he did not impose his notorious twelve-tone system on his earlier work. The Chamber Symphony is surprisingly melodic, perhaps to excess, with melodies often overlapping in various parts of the orchestra, creating dissonant tension. The piece ends on a simple minor chord. Pintscher used his exacting composer’s ear to delineate the strands of Schoenberg’s complex counterpoint with “Boulezian” clarity, while rounding out the edges and retaining the essential romanticism of the music.

This intriguing program closed with a colorful performance of Claude Debussy’s three-movement portrait of the sea, La Mer, again with dual virtues of color and clarity. Throughout there was richness in the orchestral sound; the climaxes were well-judged and the sound was thrilling, but never seemed forced. The Cleveland Orchestra’s top-notch principals had many fine solo passages.

The concert was a generous two and a quarter hours long, yet the performances by Pintscher and The Cleveland Orchestra were so involving that it hardly seemed possible. This will likely be one of the highlights of the 2016/17 season.