Essentially exact contemporaries, Mahler and Debussy make for a fascinating juxtaposition. Both offered a novel and influential musical voice and direction around the turn of the 20th century, but of a vastly different approach. Works spanning either side of Debussy’s career were pitted against the first entry of Mahler’s epoch-making symphonies in a program of striking contrasts. At the podium was Michael Tilson Thomas, one of The Cleveland Orchestra’s most cherished collaborators since his debut with this orchestra in 1974.

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Jeux amounted to Debussy’s final completed orchestral work, premiered by the Ballets Russes in 1913 – inevitably to be overshadowed by The Rite of Spring, despite being a remarkable piece in its own right. Sensuous, atmospheric beginnings shimmered under Tilson Thomas’ baton, with the music becoming more playful and mercurial, quickly shifting like the tennis match subject material. Jeux can be a daunting score, but is firmly in this orchestra’s repertoire, having made a fine recording under Pierre Boulez. Dance rhythms were splashed with color and keen attention to detail in this tautly controlled and delicately nuanced reading, authentically capturing its evanescence.

The Fantaisie, for piano and orchestra was Debussy’s sole attempt at a piano concerto. It predates the watershed works that would crystallize the composer’s impressionist language, and tends to be overlooked – it hasn’t appeared on a TCO program since 1930! But it’s a work that pianist Leif Ove Andsnes clearly believes in, treating audiences to a memorable performance. A graciously lyrical theme in the oboe opened, with the piano’s trilling entrance leading to lush and lavish writing. Gentle cascades across the keyboard were elegant and clean, and the first movement built to a brassy finish.

A slow movement was languid and lovely, with hints of Debussy’s recognizable style clearly in focus. Here, Andsnes offered a delicate, carefully measured touch, a moment of calm before a jocular and energetic finale sumptuously decorated by sparkling arpeggios. Andsnes returned for a well-deserved encore of a Chopin mazurka, beautifully conveying its ineffable wistfulness.

Leif Ove Andsnes and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Amongst first symphonies, Mahler’s virtually stands alone in being unashamedly and unmistakably of the composer’s individual voice (and chronologically, is roughly contemporaneous with the Debussy Fantaisie). MTT showed his mettle as masterful Mahlerian here, with the work beginning in stasis, ripe with anticipation. The high drone created an air of suspense and mystery, giving way to a primary theme of insouciant charm. Offstage brass fanfares created a spatial dimension, and a mellow choir of horns was especially satisfying as the movement crested to a radiant climax. Evoking the Ländler, the second movement grew to far more than a simple country tune; crisp and with swagger, conductor and orchestra purveyed a great dramatic sweep, and a Trio provided limpid contrast.

A double bass solo from principal Maximilian Dimoff made a striking beginning to the bold Feierlich und gemessen, deftly articulated in the highest register of his usually weighty instrument. Others joined in succession, interrupted by stylish klezmer-like interjections and the shrillness of the E flat clarinet, ending as it began with the pulsating funeral drum. The finale took hold in no uncertain terms with a primordial scream, Tilson Thomas drawing enormous weight and power with a mere flick of the baton. The conductor offered keen guidance and clarity in what can be an unwieldy construct in lesser hands. A brass chorale was certainly a highlight, beginning quietly and with dignified control, arrestingly burgeoning into the triumphant processional that closed, brass on their feet.