Anyone who showed up for this second Cleveland Orchestra Summers@Severance concert of 2017 hoping that Alexander Scriabin’s 1896 Piano Concerto in F sharp minor was going to be in the mystical mode of his Poem of Ecstasy and other later works was sadly disappointed. The composer was 24 when he wrote the concerto, and it is firmly in the Romantic style of Tchaikovsky and composers who succeeded Scriabin, most notably Rachmaninov, built on his style.

Bertrand Chamayou
© Marco Borggreve | Warner Classics

Bertrand Chamayou and conductor Susanna Mälkki were a musically imposing team for this first Cleveland Orchestra performance of the concerto. From the beginning of the first movement, Chamayou and Mälkki played as one in the ebb and flow of the music’s pulse, but never lost the work’s overall architecture, making the most of the grand dynamic changes throughout the three movements. Chamayou has the right temperament for this music, from thundering climaxes to the most delicate passages along the way. The first movement’s thematic materials are mostly in the orchestra, with the soloist playing virtuosic filigree hidden in the lush orchestral texture. The tempos never seemed rushed, but there was no lingering along the way. Scriabin contrasts stormy passages with almost trite melodies, and even at his relatively inexperienced age the composer knew how to build a climax.

The second movement opens with a soft string chorale, followed by a plaintive solo clarinet melody, superbly played here by Robert Woolfrey, with an underlying piano obbligato. A dark change in the mood occurs, and the piano develops the themes in a very thick, contrapuntal texture. But later the opening clarinet solo returns in dialogue with the piano.

In the final movement the piano plays a much more prominent soloistic role than in the first movement. Chamayou played streams of cascading arpeggios with Lisztian virtuosity, in constantly flexible tempos. At the end there was an outpouring of everything a Romantic piano concerto should be, with a thundering cadenza, immediately followed by another less than memorable melody. At the end, in a dramatic gesture, the soloist plays a large chord in the bass register, which is still held when the orchestra cuts out, and the concerto ends with the resonance of that chord dying away. Chamayou and Mälkki made a very strong case for more frequent revival of this work, perhaps at the expense of fewer performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

Immediately following the Scriabin, with only a brief pause to remove the piano from the stage, Mälkki returned for a vivid performance of Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, the “Rhenish”. This reading had all the virtues apparent in the Scriabin concerto: a pliant pulse, but without mannerism, rapturous romanticism, and the ability to clarify Schumann’s thick orchestrations. Schumann was an almost unparalleled melodist, but the development of his materials tends to be scattered and brief before moving on to the next  tune. The third movement, at least in this performance, proved to be very episodic. The second movement, labeled as a scherzo, but of a quite slow tempo, was mostly light in texture, and at times almost seemed like a Ländler, the hearty triple-meter folk dance of southern Germany. The third, slow movement was not particularly slow, but light, with staccato contrasted with legato passages. The odd fourth movement, with its long double bass pedal point, undergirds a series of crescendos and thickening textures, only to begin again, ending inconclusively.

The finale was joyful, the opposite of what had immediately preceded it. Mälkki got the mood entirely right. At several times in this symphony The Cleveland Orchestra’s horn section were heroes in their prominent and magnificent fanfares. They and the rest of the brass section ended the symphony with glorious chorales and a thrilling accelerando to the final cadence.