In his third appearance as a guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, Lionel Bringuier presented a highly interesting program of French music by Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns and Florent Schmitt. The concert was bookended by two Ravel works: the delicate Le tombeau de Couperin and the thrice-familiar Boléro. Both pieces were an opportunity for the Cleveland instrumentalists to show off their considerable talents. Bringuier’s genial approach in the Tombeau was marked by tempos that were perhaps a tad swifter than usual, yet never rushed. The oboe solos, of which there are many in this work, were beautifully rendered, as were other important solo passages for winds. Beautifully blended ensemble was evident from the very first moments of the opening “Prélude.” The third movement “Menuet” was perhaps the emotional high-point of the work, where Bringuier conjured up magical atmospherics that seemed to hang suspended in the hall. More broadly, Bringuier emphasized the underlying rhythmic structure of the dances while retaining a sense of elegance that is key to the music’s spirit.

Lionel Bringuier © Paolo Dutto
Lionel Bringuier
© Paolo Dutto

Boléro calls for a much larger orchestra. Even so, the opening measures were chamber-like as the flute, bassoon, English horn and clarinets each took their turn stating the famous theme. Thankfully, Bringuier adopted a somewhat brisk tempo (in comparison to Ravel’s own interpretation). He also did a masterful job controlling the musical tension, allowing the piece to build slowly without climaxing too soon. It was a thrilling conception.

Soloist Gautier Capuçon joined the orchestra in performing Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor. Composed relatively early in the composer’s life, it is written in one continuous movement, although with three distinct sections. This was considered "novel" by the music critics of the day.

From the opening bars, Capuçon made the best possible case for this music, carrying the audience through a range of emotions ranging from passionate to stormy to lyrical. The middle section, which starts with a delicate minuet-like melody in the strings after which the cello joins in with a countermelody, was beautifully conceived and executed. Capuçon transcended mere notes on the page, taking some liberties with tempos to create a special alchemy in which cello and orchestra came together as one. The final section brought us back to the opening atmospherics. At the very end of the concerto, as the music changes from minor to major key, it was as though the sun was finally breaking through the clouds in a blaze of glory.

The longest work on the program was La tragédie de Salomé by Florent Schmitt. Schmitt, whose composing career spanned more than 70 years, was part of the same generation of French composers as Ravel and Debussy. A highly important figure in the early 20th century, he later fell into obscurity, although interest in his music has been renewed in recent times.

The half-hour piece, which began life in 1907 as a ballet but was fashioned by Schmitt into a suite for large orchestra in 1910, helps us understand the rebirth in interest of this composer's work. The score, which was dedicated to Stravinsky, is a heady brew of red-blooded Romanticism coupled with impressionistic touches, along with heaping doses of barbarism, bitonality and rhythmic complexity that were quite modern for its time. Indeed, the final section of Schmitt’s score anticipates the “Danse sacrale” in The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky was composing at the same time and was premiered several years later.

Maestro Bringuier, who has conducted La tragédie de Salomé numerous times in the past half-dozen years, clearly believes in the music. His reading brought forth shimmering impressionistic atmospherics and swelling climaxes in the opening “Prélude," followed by a quicksilver “Danse des perles” so terrifically exciting, it was spine-tingling. In the second half of the suite, Bringuier and the orchestra delivered passages of overwhelming power, culminating in the cataclysmic “Danse de l’effroi". Under Bringuier’s direction, the Cleveland Orchestra musicians acquitted themselves well, digging into the score as if they knew it by heart (which surely wasn't the case since the piece was last performed in Cleveland seven decades ago). I only wish there had been a bit more bite to the timpani notes in the more savage sections of the score.

Musical invention, coupled with luxuriant orchestration in the finest post-Rimsky tradition makes it easy to understand why La tragédie de Salomé was mounted by the Ballet Russes and was danced by Ida Rubinstein (who also premiered Ravel’s Boléro). As Schmitt’s most famous work, it has always clung to the fringes of the orchestral repertoire. Now, with Lionel Bringuier and other advocates making its case so compelling, it's possible to imagine this music making a comeback in the concert hall: it's that good.

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