Vladimir Jurowski’s appearance on this weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts became another in a series of unintended tributes to the late Pierre Boulez. The program was chosen long before the French composer/conductor’s death, but the works, especially Debussy’s Images, are closely associated with Boulez and The Cleveland Orchestra, including two different Grammy-winning recordings. In an interview with Cleveland’s public radio station before the series’ first concert, Jurowski stated that he had admired those landmark recordings and wanted to see how much the Boulez influence still existed with the orchestra more than 20 years later. Happily, The Cleveland Orchestra’s clarity and refinement were present, but with Jurowski there was a smoothing around the edges of the sound – often quite lush as well as precise and elegant. Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, proved a fine exponent for this repertoire.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Benjamin Ealovega
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Benjamin Ealovega

The concert opened with Marc-André Dalbavie’s 2006-07 La Source d’un regard. The 15-minute work was written in honor of Olivier Messiaen’s centennial. It was indeed an homage, drawing upon Messiaen’s compositional, harmonic and orchestral techniques, with brief nods toward Messiaen favorites Stravinsky and Bartók. A series of stabbing unison notes colored by tuned percussion shimmered with harmonic overtones to begin the work; the same passages returned several times later as a kind of ritornello separating other segments of the work. The pace is mostly slow-moving, often without perceptible pulse, except for a short, fiery, rhythmic Stravinskian passage. Textures layered upon each other, and harmonies melted into one another, yet there was clarity of harmony, not murky clusters of sound. Toward the end, hidden in the texture was a melody in long notes that seemed to be one of Messiaen’s beloved Gregorian chants, or at least a reasonable facsimile. There were also, as in Messiaen, moments of completely tonal harmony which then melted into the more ambiguous sonic fog. Under Jurowski ‘s direction, La Source d’un regard was effective, more than a pièce d'occasion. It’s worth reviving in the future.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s performances of Ravel and Debussy piano works are well-regarded. In his Cleveland performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, he brought commanding, even muscular, technique to a work that can sometimes seem precious in its loveliness. Jurowski used a greatly reduced orchestra; Bavouzet’s playing was at times appropriately subsumed into the orchestral texture. The first movement emphasized rhythm and the jazzy elements Ravel adopted from his contemporary Gershwin. The long Gymnopédie-like waltz of the second movement stretched the musical line to its maximum without disintegrating. The movement’s long English horn solo was played with supple phrasing by Robert Walters. The third movement was a blaze of virtuosity, played at a breathtaking tempo, yet Bavouzet did more than play the cascades of notes; there was jazzy, rhythmic interest, and that ineffable “Frenchness” that can escape some players.

Claude Debussy worked on his three-part orchestral cycle Images from 1905-1912. Ibéria and Rondes de printemps both premiered in 1910, with Gigues performed in 1913. The segments are not “tone poems” in the Richard Strauss sense, but musical impressions suggesting times, places, and activities, in the same way that an impressionist painting suggests visual images by means of colors and textures rather than attempts at realism. The common playing order of the sections is Gigues, Ibéria (in three movements), and Rondes de printemps. In this performance Ibéria was placed last on the program; no explanation for this particular order was stated.

Gigues (based on the English jig, not the Baroque gigue) turns the happy jig on its head, creating an air of melancholy. The main tune is played in a wistful manner by the oboe d’amore (a slightly mellower big brother to the oboe). The material is developed and becomes more agitated, but ends by fading away. Jurowski judged tempos and balances well, with clear details throughout. Rondes de printemps is not as showy as Ibéria, which may be why it was placed second in this performance. Nonetheless it has its own pleasures, with its evocation of Spring. The musical material is based on a French folksong, developed at length. There were many solo opportunities along the way for the orchestra's splendid principal players. Ibéria covers a day in the life of a Spanish town, beginning on a busy warm evening (“Par le rues et par les Chemins”) with castanets clicking, and the bustle of townspeople. Night is conjured in “Les parfums de la nuit,” with its colorful orchestration and sensuousness. Night moves into a bright festival day with “Le matin d’un jour de fête.” These three movements capped a splendid evening showcasing The Cleveland Orchestra’s skills. Jurowski’s leadership offered insights by tweaking what was already a good thing.

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