The Cleveland Orchestra’s Thanksgiving weekend program was mostly very familiar French repertoire with the young French conductor Lionel Bringuier as guest. Sandwiched between Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was the world première of a new concerto for English horn by distinguished American composer Bernard Rands, commissioned for The Cleveland Orchestra’s Robert Walters by the Oberlin Conservatory, where Walters is on the faculty, as part of the conservatory’s 150th anniversary.

Lionel Bringuier © Paolo Dutto
Lionel Bringuier
© Paolo Dutto
The concerto is impressive both musically and as a showpiece for Robert Walters’ virtuosity. About 25 minutes in duration, the work is in three movements. The harmonic language is tinged with the influence of Alban Berg, but colored by the French impressionists, sometimes more overtly than others. The three movements each have titles. The opening “Fantasia” begins with unison octave strings, and a florid English horn solo in dialogue with other instrumental groups mimicking the soloist’s patterns. There are chordal brass interjections along the way, introducing a more lyrical English horn melody, but continuing to alternate with intricate passages. The orchestration is complex, with swirls of sound appearing suddenly as part of the textures and disappearing just as suddenly. It is possible to hear connections among the melodic groupings. Walters’ control of the mercurial technical difficulties was astonishing; swarms of very fast scales, interposed with long-held notes.

The second movement “Aubade” (defined as a song or poem greeting the dawn, or morning music) was slow with an angular English horn melody, layered over the string section, beginning with the violins, and each succeeding phrase adding another layer of string sound. The soloist is sometimes in dialogue with other instruments. This movement showed the control Robert Walters has over long phrases. Over the course of the movement Rands has creates a lushness of orchestral texture not dissimilar to that of Debussy or Ravel. The movement ends with mysterious string chords and a quiet, accented harp pizzicato.

The third movement is Bernard Rands’ most direct reference to the French impressionists. Entitled “Hommage à C-AD” (the initials of Claude-Achille Debussy). Although there are no direct quotations from Debussy, the mood is jaunty, with an active orchestra part, sometimes abrasive, other times shimmering, perhaps something like that of Debussy’s Jeux. Towards the end of the movement there is an extended cadenza, which showed Robert Walters’ virtuosity. The end of the concerto is a single, solo English horn note. Throughout the concerto Lionel Bringuier led the complicated orchestral accompaniment with clarity and precision. Rands’ orchestration was well-judged for maximum audibility of the soloist; Bringuier carried out the composer’s intentions. The concerto is a challenging listen, but with enough relationship to tonality and traditional use of orchestration to make it arresting. 

The performance of Debussy’s impressionist masterpiece Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was understated, as if viewed through gauze, with unusually quiet dynamics, except for a couple of climactic moments. Cleveland Orchestra principal flute Joshua Smith played the opening unaccompanied solo phrases with sensuous allure. Bringuier led with flexible phrasing and restraint, almost a sense of temporal stasis, but he never lost Debussy’s underlying pulse.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in 1924 under founding music director Nikolai Sokoloff and has performed it hundreds of times since, including five different commercial recordings dating back to 1941. Lionel Bringuier did not attempt to force a “concept” on this performance ­­– Berlioz’s orchestration and literary program provides color enough. Each of the five movements was effective in its own way.  The conductor caught the many changing moods of the first movement “Rêveries – Passions”. Despite the many connected sections, the movement held together. The second movement waltz had an easy elegance, with clean, clear textures and an overall lightness. Robert Walters may have been the evening’s featured soloist, but he was back in his usual orchestra chair for the English horn solos that open the pastoral “Scène aux champs” with principal oboe Frank Rosenwein stationed off-stage for the distant echoes. The agitation of the artist Berlioz represents in the symphony built during the movement, with an ominous repetition of the opening shepherd pipes underscored by distant thunder. The slow movement was connected almost without pause to the grotesque “March to the Scaffold,” the artist’s fevered dream of punishment after he poisons his unattained beloved. The was an inevitability to the performance, which itself led into the final “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” which becomes a fantasy on the Dies irae chant from the Mass for the Dead. Bringuier and the orchestra caught the scandalous parody of the movement, ending a very fine concert.