“I think my jubilation is in the music” wrote Stravinsky to Robert Craft on his Scènes de ballet, the jubilation in question being that which the composer felt upon hearing news of the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation while simultaneously composing the ballet’s final scene. The work served as a colorful opener to Michael Tilson Thomas’ all-Russian program in his first Cleveland Orchestra appearance since 2006. In the intervening years between when Stravinsky himself introduced the piece to Cleveland audiences in 1947 and last weekend’s performances, Scènes de ballet has appeared on a Cleveland Orchestra program only once; while relegated to the periphery of Stravinsky’s catalogue, it’s a work of great appeal and of deep personal significance to Tilson Thomas as he relayed in his spoken introduction.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Art Streiber
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Art Streiber

One of Stravinsky’s first commissions after settling in the United States, Scènes de ballet was written for a Broadway revue assembled by impresario Billy Rose who further engaged such diverse talents as Cole Porter and Benny Goodman. The work opened with bright and brilliant polychords and unfurled as a pastiche of garish juxtapositions and dizzying intricacies. A central Pas de deux featured a sweeping trumpet solo from Michael Sachs, and later, some rapid-fire clarinet playing by Daniel McKelway. The concluding Apothéose, inspiring the above quote, was fittingly gleaming with jubilance and exuberance.

It’s hard to believe that Daniil Trifonov is still only in his mid-twenties given his meteoric rise to the highest echelons of pianists. And this is a trajectory with roots in Cleveland, as Trifonov came to this city to study with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music, just a few blocks away from Severance Hall. There are few works in the repertoire that allow for such dazzling display of technique as Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor, though tonight matters opened in questioning introspection with a nearly Chopinesque lyricism. The music grew more animated very quickly, leading to the massive first movement cadenza, and here Trifonov unleashed the full force of his astonishing technical arsenal. With an unassuming beginning, the cadenza burgeoned into a thunderous, jaw-dropping outpouring, yet this was more than mere bombast – steel-fingered as Trifonov was, the sound was never metallic, with each nuance deftly shaped and sculpted.

The Scherzo was a breathless exercise in perpetual motion, hardly a hurdle for this pianist’s dexterity. Ever the enfant terrible, Prokofiev eschewed a genuine slow movement, and the following intermezzo was marked by acerbic hand-crossings and silky-smooth glissandos. A violent cascade at breakneck speed opened the finale, and while later contrasted by a gentler lullaby-like melody, this too grew in agitation with Trifonov awe-inspiring until the end. An encore felt all but inevitable, and Trifonov obliged with the Andante sognando from the same composer’s Piano Sonata no. 8 – a movement of strained lyricism and brooding contemplation.

Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony closed the Russian evening; a warhorse as the work may be, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra offered a performance that skirted the routine. A somber opening grounded by the bassoons gave way in due course to the soaring main theme, beginning as a sigh and growing to searing intensity – passionate yet never sentimental. The deeply mellow clarinet of Afendi Yusuf resounded as a calm before the tempestuous development. Respite from those depths of emotion was found in the graceful Allegro con grazia where Tchaikovsky miraculously manages to make a 5/4 meter sound like a waltz, encouraged here by the orchestra’s elegant, long-bowed playing.

Featherlight textures initiated the Allegro molto vivace, increasingly gaining gravitas – sometimes menacing, sometimes playful, but always confident and striding with a supercharged orchestral virtuosity. No applause from the well-behaved audience interrupted the jarring transition from the penultimate movement’s triumph to the doleful finale. The solemn bassoons from the opening reemerged and the movement proceeded as long paragraphs of lament, oscillating between peaks and valleys. It was deep into the latter where the work concluded; a foreboding statement in the low brass served as a point of no return, and sound faded into silence.