If there was an overall theme for this week’s Cleveland Orchestra concert, it was not discernable, which did not in any way reduce the pleasure that it brought. The distinguished Polish conductor Marek Janowski made his second appearance with the orchestra, the first having been in 2012. Two of the works, Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite and Franck’s Symphony in D minor are staples of the repertoire, and Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, with tenor Matthew Polenzani and the orchestra’s principal horn Richard King as soloists was a nod in the direction of this year’s Britten centennial celebrations. (Britten’s Spring Symphony comes later in the season.)

Marek Janowski © Felix Broede
Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1893 symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande prompted several composers, including Arnold Schoenberg, Jean Sibelius, and Gabriel Fauré, not to mention Claude Debussy, to create musical works inspired by the mysterious and atmospheric drama of doomed love. Fauré wrote incidental music for an 1898 London production of the play, from which he extracted his four-movement concert suite. The movements are, for the most part, gentle, lyrical and melodic, featuring soloists from the reduced-sized orchestra. The opening “Prélude” featured fine solo playing by cellist Richard Weiss. Later in the movement a distant horn call recalled the character Golaud’s hunting expedition during which he finds Mélisande lost in the forest. The second movement, “La fileuse”, is a spinning song, with repeated rapid patterns in the strings, punctuated by plucked bass, and the tune in the solo oboe. The “Siciliano”, the “big tune” of the suite, began with solo flute Joshua Smith accompanied by harp; later the melody is taken up by the strings, who played with utmost transparency. The final movement, “The Death of Mélisande”, is much more emotional, funereal and dirge-like, slowly trodding with halting rhythms. As the assembled characters watch Mélisande die following childbirth, the music ends dolorously, with great serenity. Although Fauré’s suite is very well known, Janowski and the orchestra brought freshness and charm to their performance.

Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is a cycle of six orchestral songs, with a solo horn Prologue and Epilogue, here both played off-stage. The horn also plays an important role in the vocal movements. Britten wrote the songs in 1943 for his muse and life partner, tenor Peter Pears, and the virtuoso horn part was inspired by and written for the British horn player Dennis Brain, for whom Britten wrote several other works before Brain’s untimely early death. The texts are from poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, Ben Jonson, and John Keats, along with the anonymous 15th-century “Lyke Wake Dirge”.

Metropolitan Opera star Matthew Polenzani might not be the first tenor who comes to mind to sing Britten’s Serenade, with his association with Verdi’s Alfredo, and Duke, and the operas of Donizetti. But his voice fit Britten’s unrelentingly high music remarkably well. Not only did he have the high notes, his voice has enough heft to expand to fill the more dramatic moments. Yet he can scale it down for more intimate passages, and he has the flexibility for Britten’s coloratura as well. Especially in the “Lyke Wake Dirge”, which begins soft and high, then crescendos to loud and high, then returns to end very softly and high, Polenzani’s control was remarkable. And in the closing setting of Keats’ “Sonnet” (“O soft embalmer of the still midnight...”) his legato and dramatic gifts made more of the song than do some more traditional “English-style” tenors. Polenzani and King made a romp of the scherzo-like setting of Ben Jonson’s “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair”. Richard King is a brilliant horn player, but he seemed to be having a slightly off night, with several fluffed notes, especially in the solo Epilogue. But that did not diminish his contributions to the whole, which, with Marek Janowski leading the strings of the orchestra in transparent accompaniment, led to a very satisfying overall performance of Britten’s great work.

César Franck’s 1887–88 Symphony in D Minor, once a staple of the orchestral repertoire, seems to have fallen out of favor in more recent years. The music has many of the aspects of Franck’s organ works, especially those of more symphonic nature such as the Grande pièce symphonique, Op. 17. The music is serious, highly chromatic, wandering from key to key, with many themes that are layered and developed, and thickly orchestrated. Janowski led an urgent performance that capitalized on The Cleveland Orchestra’s clarity and precision. He saved the music from becoming lugubrious, allowing many details to shine through, and illuminating the many thematic connections among the movements. On the basis of this performance, perhaps Franck isn’t ready for the dustbin yet.

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