The Cleveland Orchestra performed Claude Debussy’s only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande in a special staged version two seasons ago. Guest conductor Alain Altinoglu this week led the orchestra in his own symphonic suite in one movement drawn from the opera. It is a beautifully wrought piece, especially considering the daunting task of reducing a three-hour opera to just twenty minutes. Altinoglu has leaned most heavily on the orchestral interludes between scenes, but he also borrows material from the underlying accompaniment to the sung text. The major scenes of the opera, in the order in which they occur, are stitched together: Golaud discovers Mélisande in the forest; Mélisande playing with her wedding ring and dropping it in the pool; the love scene between Pelléas and Mélisande; Golaud killing Pelléas; and Mélisande’s death. It was not apparent that Altinoglu used anything but Debussy’s own music, so seamless was the outcome. TCO played with understated refinement throughout. The short passage in which Golaud kills Pelléas could have had more drama, but the final few minutes from the end of the opera were breathtakingly beautiful.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Matthias Pintscher was last week’s guest conductor at Severance Hall. This week he was represented as a composer by the orchestra’s principal flute, Joshua Smith, as soloist in the local première of Pintscher’s Transir (2005-06) for flute and chamber orchestra.  The program note described four pages of complex instructions for the performers, with further instructions for dynamics, tempo and articulations accompanying each note. The soloist plays in every conceivable way, except perhaps a sustained tone or recognizable melody. This might all seem like an exercise in academic imagination, but the proof was in the twenty minutes of alluring sounds. Although melody, harmony and form were absent in any traditional way, there was forward motion throughout and signposts along the way in the form of solo flute cadenza-like passages between larger sections. The textures and timbres within the orchestra were very carefully calculated, with one instrument beginning a sonority but melting into the sound of another instrument that picks up and completes it. The prevailing dynamic was soft, wisps of sound that become entrapped to create a web that is sometimes more, sometimes less diaphanous. Who in the listening audience can say if the performance was accurate? But there can be no doubt that Joshua Smith was fearless and utterly convincing in his virtuosity, as was the accompanying orchestra. 

Like a recalcitrant child who eats his vegetables and then is rewarded with his pudding, Altinoglu and TCO closed with three audience favorites by Maurice Ravel: the Rapsodie espagnole, the Pavane pour une infante défunte and Boléro. Alas, the performances sounded more dutiful than inspired, without the care that had gone into the Debussy and Pintscher performances in the first half. Boléro rambled to its masterfully ingenious and inevitably audience-rousing conclusion. But this reading lacked the kind of “Boulezian” precision and clarity of sound for which this orchestra is justifiably renowned in this repertoire. Both precision and textural clarity are required to make Ravel’s striking orchestrations tick.