French conductor Stéphane Denève, music director-designate of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and a regular guest at The Cleveland Orchestra, led a program this weekend that could barely have been more contrasted. Francis Poulenc’s rarely-heard and concise Concert champêtre for harpsichord and orchestra, with the excellent Jory Vinikour as soloist, was paired with Sergei Rachmaninov’s hour-long Symphony no. 2 in E minor, Op.27, in a performance illustrating the axiom that nothing succeeds like excess.

Stephane Deneve © Uwe Ditz
Stephane Deneve
© Uwe Ditz

Poulenc was commissioned to write his harpsichord concerto by American heiress, Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, for harpsichord pioneer Wanda Landowska, who gave its first performance in Paris in 1929. Even at the age of 30, Poulenc’s musical style was unmistakable, with his combination of spiky dissonance and quirky chord progressions with neoclassical rhythms. The orchestra is surprisingly large; Poulenc solved the problem of balance between harpsichord and orchestra by contrasting full orchestral phrases with lightly-scored accompaniment when the harpsichord plays. After the first few moments of adjusting one’s ears to the musical textures, it all seemed perfectly natural. Landowska’s Pleyel harpsichord of the 1920s was more heavily built and louder than the late 20th-century William Dowd French double instrument used at Severance Hall. To partially solve the balance issue, the harpsichord here was very discreetly amplified, although the sound never seemed artificial.

Jory Vinikour was a brilliant soloist, managing to make the score sound both witty, and – as odd as this may seem – heroic. The solo part is full of notes chattering away under the orchestra, but also in solo passages of big chords and single-note recitatives. The champêtre of the title would indicate a pastoral flavor to the music. The second movement “Sicilienne” most often represented that style, with a tune in the harpsichord, later lushly played by the orchestra. Poulenc liked musical surprises; the second movement winds down to a quiet conclusion, only to end with a loud orchestral chord. The third movement’s harpsichord fanfares eventually fade away to a quiet ending.

Vinikor returned for an encore, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les cyclopes, in which his virtuosity was displayed to more obvious effect than in the concerto, with fistfuls of scales and arpeggios, hand-crossing and other technical feats. The audience’s response to the concerto had seemed lukewarm; the solo work brought bravos and applause galore.

Rachmaninov’s 1907 Symphony no. 2 in E minor, Op.27 was first performed by The Cleveland Orchestra in 1920, and the orchestra made one of the first recordings of the work in a specially-shortened version by the composer in 1928, on a set of twelve 78 rpm discs. No such time constraints were at work in this weekend’s performance, however. Stéphane Denève magnified every aspect of the symphony: fast tempos were very fast; slow tempos were stretched to their outer limits. Principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf should win a breath-control medal for his exquisite playing in the long phrases of his solo at the beginning of the third movement. The symphony’s climaxes were ear-splitting; soft passages were not similarly exaggerated. 

Despite the volume and tempo excess, Stéphane Denève clearly delineated Rachmaninov’s musical structure, and all the big tunes were in place. The diminuendo at the end of the third movement was impressive, fading away to silence. The fourth movement was heroic and joyous. The Cleveland Orchestra showed its mettle throughout in these extreme demands. Stéphane Denève proved that the orchestra can set aside its patrician elegance for an occasional wallow in Romantic excess. The results were indeed thrilling.

***11