Franz Welser-Möst conducted only two of the four works on this week’s Cleveland Orchestra streamed episode: 15 quirky movements from Sergei Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives, originally for piano, orchestrated by Rudolf Barshai. Francis Poulenc’s 1938 Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Timpani closed the program, with Paul Jacobs as the soloist. TCO’s principal flute Joshua Smith contributed stellar performances of two important 20th-century works for solo flute.

Joshua Smith
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

When Smith was appointed to his current position in 1990 he was a talented youngster. He is now one of the stars of the orchestra. In a rare solo performance, he was alone onstage, with blood-red lighting, to play Tōru Takemitsu’s Air, the composer’s last completed work before his death in 1996. It is contemplative, with few extended playing techniques except for some pitch bending and flutter tongue phrases. Otherwise, the piece is direct, with soaring melody and phrases nodding in respect to his teacher Messiaen, and what might be ethereal birdsong. Smith coaxed an astonishing variety of timbral colors from his instrument.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts The Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

He was back on a dark stage later for a much more well-known work, Debussy’s Syrinx (1913). Originally titled La Flûte de Pan, the composer intended it as incidental music for a play, “the last melody that Pan plays before his death”. Although Syrinx doesn’t have the erotic overtones of the first phrases of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, the sound world is the same. There are virtuosic cascades of arpeggios, but the music often features the flute’s more sensuous lower range. Smith’s performance was brilliant, with playfulness as well as a melancholy sensibility.

Between the two solo flute works, Welser-Möst served up bite-sized servings from Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives. The moods were diverse, suggesting whimsical scenes: for example, an imaginary romp that vanishes into thin air, an odd waltz, a sashay down the street. The orchestra’s string sections played these pleasing bits well, even if they are not top-drawer Prokofiev.

Paul Jacobs and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Paul Jacobs, organ department chair at the Juilliard School, has become a frequent concerto soloist with The Cleveland Orchestra. He joined them here to close the concert with Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. It was commissioned in 1934 by the Princesses de Polignac, née Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, for performance in the princess’s salon. Her mansion had a Cavaillé-Coll organ, a status symbol every rich person seemingly had to have. The young virtuoso Maurice Duruflé was the first soloist. Severance Hall’s four-manual E.M. Skinner organ has a different tonal palette from the French organ, but Jacobs’s imaginative registrations were in the right spirit. Those listening for virtuoso pyrotechnics were disappointed; Poulenc’s concerto is austere, a fantaisie in several connected sections with recurring themes. The composer mostly subdues his famous sense of musical humor. This restraint makes the sudden fortissimo climaxes all the more effective. The organ often plays as part of the ensemble. Not only was the performance precise (a not inconsiderable feat given the distances between conductor, organist and pipes), but the balance between organ and orchestra was excellent in this recording.

This performance was reviewed from the Adella video stream