Titled Style & Craft, this Cleveland Orchestra program paired two works from pivotal 20th-century composers, both written while they were twenty-somethings discovering their individual voices. Ravel’s Sonatine made for a brief but beguiling opening; the balance of the program was devoted to Britten’s magnificent tribute to his teacher, Frank Bridge.

Frank Rosenwein
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The Sonatine is certainly one of Ravel’s loveliest creations for the piano. Here, it was presented in a transcription for oboe and piano by David Walter whose large catalogue of such arrangements has done much to expand the oboe’s limited repertoire. Principal oboe Frank Rosenwein made for a compelling recital partner with pianist Carolyn Gadiel Warner – who uniquely serves in the orchestra as both keyboardist and violinist.

The opening movement contrasted a languid melody over a shimmering accompaniment, with oboist and pianist occasionally coming together in unison. Ravel’s piano works are so exquisitely constructed I was skeptical of how well it would work in transcription, yet the music seemed a natural fit for the oboe. In the central Mouvement de menuet, Rosenwein capitalized on the oboe’s sustaining quality in electing for a slower than usual tempo. While perhaps a bit slow for a true minuet, it nonetheless proved quite effective. The exciting toccata which concluded was seamlessly coordinated, and the oboe did much to draw out the melodic line, a quantity never to be lost in this music of perpetual motion.

Remarkably written in the span of just twenty days, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was completed in time for a premiere at the 1937 Salzburg Festival – a performance which immeasurably advanced the incipient composer’s prestige. The theme in question is extracted from the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet, and undergoes a striking series of transformations, recast for a lush string orchestra. Both composers were accomplished viola players, and show a natural fluency in writing for strings.

Vinay Parameswaran conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Guiding the Cleveland strings from the podium was Associate Conductor Vinay Parameswaran. Following jagged introductory material came a tender presentation of the theme. A heartfelt Adagio served as the first of ten variations, and the work’s trajectory certainly documents Britten’s unbridled imagination. Further highlights included a wistful Romance, a Bourée classique which served as something of a style parody in its piquant dissonances, and perhaps most memorably, a Viennese Waltz. Here, the theme morphed into distant reminiscences of Johann Strauss, though not without a degree of rather flippant satire. 

A Moto perpetuo variation followed, demonstrating the ensemble’s tight cohesion. The Funeral March made for a suitably somber affair, grounded by the imposing rumblings in the double basses. An extended fugue served as the final variation – an end goal to which the composer would later return in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Matters were sophisticated but never merely academic, with an orchestral virtuosity commanded by the pinpoint accuracy of Parameswaran’s baton, yet in the final moments, the counterpoint gave way to the lyrical and resonant.

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream