German composer/conductor Matthias Pintscher has become a regular guest at The Cleveland Orchestra in recent years. His works have been performed on several occasions by the orchestra, but lately he has also become a guest conductor of choice. As the music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris, Pintscher follows in the footsteps of another longtime Cleveland favorite, Pierre Boulez. Both artists share the quality of a composer’s ear to illuminate the performance of works by other composers. This weekend’s all-Ravel concert could have evoked treacherous Boulezian comparison. But Pintscher’s interpretations were striking: time and again, details emerged from the musical texture that might otherwise have been overlooked. Rather than perfect but remote, the music was freshly bathed in a warm glow.

Matthias Pintscher
© Roger Mastroianni

Ravel’s suite Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) was composed in 1908 as a set of five pieces for piano duet. In 1911, Ravel orchestrated the suite, and a year later expanded it with two further movements to create a ballet. The more familiar five-movement suite was played here. A small orchestra was used, creating a sound of great delicacy and, in the opening Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty, a sense of serenity. Tom Thumb was highlighted by excellent oboe and English horn solos (Jeffrey Rathbun and Robert Walters, respectively). The chinoiserie of Little Homely, Empress of the Pagodas emphasized Ravel’s use of glittering percussion. In Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, the contrast between Beauty (solo clarinet) and the Beast (contrabassoon) was touching, as was the moment when the Beast is magically transformed to a prince. The final movement, The Fairy Garden, began as a quiet chorale for strings, gradually adding the winds, brass and, finally, tuned percussion, celesta and harp for a warm, sunny conclusion.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet has the perfect temperament for Ravel’s music, with his abundant technical prowess, along with an innate sense of style and color. The Piano Concerto in D major for the left hand was finished in 1930, commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose right arm had been amputated after an injury in World War 1. Ravel’s concerto was one of a number of works that Wittgenstein commissioned from notable composers. From the murky texture of the opening double bass and contrabassoon passage, gradually clarified until the spectacular fortissimo piano entrance, The Cleveland Orchestra’s variety of colors matched those of the pianist.

One only had to observe Thibaudet’s performance to realize the extreme physical demands of the piece. The music ranges from the low end of the piano compass to the top, forcing the soloist often to contort his body into unusual positions in order to get the left hand to the higher keyboard regions. Thibaudet used the complete resources of the piano, from delicate tracery to thunderous chordal passages, and a strong emphasis on darker, lower colors of the instrument. It was as if Thibaudet made his right hand disappear, even to the point of shaking the concertmaster’s hand at the end of the performance with his left hand.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
© Roger Mastroianni

The first two decades of the 20th century were perhaps the golden age of ballet music, under the guidance of impresario Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. Masterpieces by Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel’s 1912 Daphnis et Chloé all appeared within a few years of each other. The second half of this weekend’s concert consisted of the complete ballet music for Daphnis et Chloé. The music lasts almost an hour. There are many lovely moments, but Ravel had the right idea in compiling two succinct suites of the highlights of the music.

Matthias Pintscher led an excellent performance. The very opening, with its sense of time standing still, set the stage, with solo flute and very high solo oboe, along with the wordless chorus that is an integral instrument in Ravel’s orchestra. The chorus was superbly prepared, except for a few tentative moments in an extended unaccompanied passage toward the end. There are many virtuosic solos and tricky orchestral passages, all dispatched with apparent ease and lush sound. The best music is at the end of the ballet, when Daphnis and Chloé are reunited after various travails, and the sections depicting sunrise and the closing Danse générale were thrilling.