Pianist Kirill Gerstein and conductor Matthias Pintscher are regular and welcome guests at Severance Hall with The Cleveland Orchestra. Although he plays a wide range of repertoire, Gerstein is especially fine in the big romantic piano concertos, such as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, superbly played at this week’s concerts. Pintscher is also a well-regarded composer; his conducting reflects a sharp ear for orchestral detail, but also a humanizing sense of phrasing. This week’s concert was thoroughly satisfying in its scope and musicality.

Mathias Pintscher
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was written in 1909 for his first American tour as a soloist. It sets a standard for required technical challenges among each new wave of young virtuosos. Gerstein is, however, a seasoned artist not content to pound his way through the zillions of notes; in this performance he was able to bring a high degree of nuance to not just the score, but the overall sense of phrasing – the ebb and flow of pulse – in this most romantic of romantic piano concertos. Pintscher was an excellent accompanist; it was fascinating to watch the communication between pianist and conductor. The Cleveland Orchestra’s sound was rich and mellow. The piano cadenza in the first movement was bombastic when it needed to be, with cascades of notes, but Gerstein was also able to rein in his sound for subtlety in the quiet passages. In the second movement's opening solo, Gerstein mixed an ecstatic melody underlying swirls of figurations in the left hand. The third movement’s tempo was brisk, but not rushed. There was utmost clarity in Gerstein’s playing; there was no faking. Invited back for an encore, he played Chopin’s Waltz in A flat major, Op.34, no. 1 with his characteristic rhythmic freedom and pianistic clarity.

Béla Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince was first performed in 1917, to a scenario by Béla Balász, librettist of Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle. The story of The Wooden Prince is almost a mirror image of Bluebeard’s tragedy: a prince woos a diffident princess unsuccessfully. He creates a puppet carved from wood in his own image to capture her attention. She falls for the puppet, but loses interest and expresses her love for the prince. He rejects her, but in the end, they resolve their differences and live happily ever after.

Performances are rare, but The Wooden Prince is full of striking passages and magical orchestrations. The ballet opens with a long bass pedal tone similar to the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. But the decorations above the sustained low note in Bartók emanate from Hungary, not the Rhine. Folksong in The Wooden Prince is never far away. Some of the orchestral effects, such as the shimmering percussion and harp figurations, are very similar to those in Bluebeard’s Castle. Befitting what is essentially a love story, the overall aspect of the ballet music is more optimistic than that of the opera.

Matthias Pintscher brought to the Bartók the same qualities as in the Rachmaninov: subtle phrasing, attention to detail and an overall sense of trajectory. Orchestra principals made significant contributions along the way, especially clarinetist Afendi Yusuf, whose sound and control were amazing. Despite a few ensemble and intonation issues along the way, the performance made a strong case for a neglected Bartók work.