Since its premiere in Boston earlier this year, the Piano Concerto by Thomas Adès has garnered much attention, and Ohio audiences had the chance to experience the work during the weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra performances with dedicatee Kirill Gerstein. At the podium was Alan Gilbert, a familiar presence who served as an assistant conductor here in the mid-1990s and continues to be a regular guest. While not Adès’ first work in the medium – the Concerto conciso (1997) and In Seven Days (2008) preceded – this concerto nonetheless marks the composer’s first foray into a full-scale, multi-movement work for piano and orchestra. In assessing the significance of the work, Gerstein asserts that not since Ravel and Prokofiev has there been a piano concerto both unashamedly modernist yet readily accessible.

Alan Gilbert
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

At just over twenty minutes, the concerto is a compact, economical work, cast in a very traditional three-movement arc. A timpani gesture inaugurated the opening Allegramente with the bold piano entrance following promptly. The often angular piano writing was given an energetic workout, building to grandiose flourishes, and taking cue from the Romantic piano concerto tradition – complete with ample double octaves and all the hallmarks of a virtuoso concerto – but never sounding derivative. Matters felt tautly constructed, with no wasted space, proceeding with purpose to the movement’s blistering end wherein the piano was pitted in striking concert with the xylophone.

A moving chorale marked the central Andante gravemente, answered by piquant dissonances in the piano. This was genuinely touching music, particularly when the chorale theme was later evoked on the keyboard. The closing Allegro giojoso was given with vivacious abandon. Colorful timbres and a liberal use of the percussion pointed the way to a big-boned, deeply satisfying ending. Though one couldn’t have asked for a better champion than Gerstein, I certainly look forward to also hearing it in the hands of others as the work becomes a part of the repertoire – as well as more from Adès: the program notes tantalizingly reveal that he is at work on a co-commission from The Cleveland Orchestra for a premiere next season.

The Adès served as the evening’s centerpiece, sandwiched between two of the Bs, Bach and Brahms. When was the last time you’ve been to a concert that began rather than ended with a Brahms symphony? Such was par for the course over the weekend with the program opening with the Third Symphony. Gilbert has just started his tenure as chief conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Brahms’ hometown of Hamburg; perhaps the spirit of following in the composer’s footsteps helped guide his reading of this least-performed of the four symphonies.

An attention-grabbing opening belied the work’s general calm, ambiguously oscillating between major and minor. A lyricism flourished via burnished strings and sweet winds, while the development added heightened drama, mellowed by the brass and a beautifully shaped coda. The Andante opened with a gentle choir of winds – while passing moments of tension were to be found, it was generally a study in tranquility. The following Poco allegretto was colored amber by the cellos, and the finale opened in crisp severity, the work’s strongest display of firepower. A reminiscence of the work’s beginning appeared, at last achieving resolution. Such notion of thematic recurrence is largely associated with the New German School with whom Brahms was purportedly in conflict, yet here he used one of their central techniques to great effect. Some uncoordinated entrances regrettably stunted this passage’s otherwise radiant potential.

Closing the evening was Bach’s Suite no. 3 in D major, with the orchestra shrinking to an echt-Baroque ensemble – 300 years of musical history were thus telescoped into a single evening. The stately overture featured a clarion trio of trumpets, along with oboes sharply articulating the sequences of dotted rhythms. The violins were mesmerizingly songful in the famous air, and a sequence of lighter dances rounded off the suite, landing a particularly gregarious gigue.