French conductor François-Xavier Roth, whose performances and recordings of early 20th-century French and Russian works with the period-instrument orchestra Les Siècles have been revelatory, brought sophisticated ideas of musical color and texture to his debut with The Cleveland Orchestra. Spanish pianist Javier Perianes was the soloist for Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, filling in on short notice for violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who canceled due to illness.

François-Xavier Roth © Holger Talinski
François-Xavier Roth
© Holger Talinski

In 1883, while Claude Debussy was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he composed a four-movement Première suite d’orchestre. The score was lost, but there continued to be mention of it. In 2008, a two-piano version and the orchestral parts for the first three movements were discovered, but missing the orchestration for the fourth movement Rêve. French composer Philippe Manoury undertook a reconstruction of the orchestration, which received its Cleveland premiere at this concert.

Rêve is an immature work, although the seeds of Debussy’s future genius are apparent. Manoury’s orchestration is respectful of Debussy’s incipient impressionistic style and foreshadows later works. There are undulating string passages, a lush melody in cellos and violas. Woodwinds and brass make important contributions in building to the work’s climax. The harmonic structure is conservative, as if Debussy were composing “by the book” to impress his professors. Roth and The Cleveland Orchestra gave a fine account of this curiosity, but its place in the Debussy canon is peripheral.

Despite last-minute substitution, there was no disappointment to be found in this performance of the Ravel concerto. The music had a clarity sometimes missing; Roth chose tempi that allowed phrases to flow, and the fast sections were paced so that the musical line never faltered. The Concerto in G major is perhaps the closest thing to the great American jazz piano concerto. Ravel’s familiarity and interest in jazz are apparent throughout. Perianes was a stylish soloist, with technical facility corresponding to his musical wishes. This performance used a somewhat reduced string section, so the piano was always clearly audible. The slow Gymnopédie-like second movement seemed suspended in time; when the orchestra entered later in the movement, it was almost imperceptible, as if they had been playing all along, and someone just turned up the volume. English horn player Robert Walters was serene and melancholy in the solo toward the end of the movement. Roth launched immediately into the third movement. The orchestra has the melodic material in the finale; the pianist is left to display his talents with brilliant filigree, ending an enchanting performance. Perianes returned for an encore, the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s ballet El amor brujo, in the composer’s own transcription for solo piano. His playing was appropriately virtuosic.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed the music from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka at Severance Hall in 1932, and it has been performed many times since then by conductors as diverse as the composer himself and Pierre Boulez. Roth chose Stravinsky’s 1947 revision and took an approach that was robust and full-bodied, sometimes almost aggressive, but still allowing for focus on Stravinsky’s use of Russian folk tunes in the score. Above all, Roth and TCO made the music dance, with its rhythm and harmonic innovations played as if they were new to the ear. It was easy to visualize this as a ballet, with transitions and marked differences in tone from scene to scene. The orchestral soloists are important in Petrushka: pianist Carolyn Warner’s important solos were especially beautiful, often subtle and delicate. The trumpet section was at their best in the often cruelly high passages Stravinsky wrote. This performance was arresting, both by the moment and as a totality.

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