Thursday evening marked The Cleveland Orchestra debut of conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, who currently holds music directorships in both Spain and Finland. While Slobodeniouk’s program may have resembled the perennial overture-concerto-symphony format, it was otherwise decidedly offbeat, offering less-trodden scores of Rachmaninov and Nielsen with a Liszt centerpiece. Contemporary with the rather more familiar Third Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov’s tone poem Isle of the Dead captures in musical terms the darkness and mystery of Arnold Böcklin’s eponymous painting.

Marc-André Hamelin
© Sim Cannety-Clarke

The opening material was of a soundworld cloaked in mystery, evoking the roiling sea that enveloped the titular isle, a foreboding realm. One of the composer’s longest single-movement essays, Isle of the Dead is perhaps not his tautest structure, but Slobodeniouk did much to guide with direction, acting perhaps as the rudder of the boat depicted in the painting. The music gradually built to imposing climaxes, hyper-Romantic in its passions and splendor. Near the end, the Dies irae – a subject which virtually became Rachmaninov’s calling card – was evoked to chilling effect, hinted at only obliquely earlier in the work. The opening material resurfaced once again, closing the piece just as mysteriously as before.

Marc-André Hamelin’s legendary technical arsenal certainly makes him a choice soloist in Liszt. The composer (whose birthday fell two days before the concert) was represented with the Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, a twenty-minute virtuoso potboiler. The commanding opening gesture was replete with thunderous double octaves, wherein Hamelin filled Severance Hall with a bold pianism. This wasn’t all bombast by any stretch, however, with the pianist soon having the chance to display his lyrical touch in the delicate filigree and in conversation with various soloists, most memorably clarinetist Daniel McKelway.

While cast in a single movement, a more traditional four-movement structure nonetheless lies beneath the surface. The Quasi adagio was nocturne-like in its rippling, indulgent bel canto and the Allegretto vivace featured striking use of the triangle in tandem with Hamelin’s stylish playing. Matters proceeded headstrong to the rollicking finale, with the pianist’s pearly technique the star of the show. As an encore, Hamelin offered the Debussy prelude Général Lavine – eccentric. Its ragtime-inflected material was countered by that of a more impressionistic palette, in all cases continued evidence of Hamelin’s thorough command of the instrument.

Scandinavian composers of Carl Nielsen’s generation were encouraged to develop their own musical identity rather than merely imitating the German tradition. This is readily apparent in the Symphony no. 5, a refreshing departure in its rarefied musical language, for which Slobodeniouk served as a thoughtful interpreter. Structured in two extended movements, the first opened in a texture of tremolos with a stately outlining of the principal theme following in due course. A more martial theme was heralded by indefatigable principal percussionist Marc Damoulakis on the snare. The work’s most memorable moment came in a lush of strident lyricism, soon upended by the snare and stentorian brass, a tension which yielded magnificent results. With the snare then relegated offstage, the movement’s last word was given to principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf in a luminous solo passage.

The closing movement began boisterous and busy, its grandeur eventually giving way to more playful Scherzo-like material. A passage in the high strings served as a lyrical interlude before the movement’s opening made an imposing return for a bold conclusion. Slobodeniouk elicited committed playing from the orchestra, yet ultimately this fell short of a performance convincing enough to yield any new Nielsen devotees. All due credit, nonetheless, to the conductor for making his first local impression with a challenging program.