Vladimir Horowitz once said, “Good composers or bad composers, the best pianists were all composers.” To a great extent this is true (at least prior to today's era, when pianists are trained to win competitions, like racehorses wearing blinders): Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff – all were as famous as pianists in their day as composers. Even Horowitz dipped his toes into composing before fate compelled him to turn to performing as his bread & butter.
Whether Horowitz’s aphorism applies to conductors is open to debate. Several composers were, in their time, also known as conductors: Mahler, Rachmaninoff - who was offered music directorship of the Boston Symphony, and Boulez - who was so associated with Cleveland for much of his life. But the vast majority of conductors have never composed – at least professionally.
Matthias Pintscher was guess conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for this past weekend’s concerts at Severance Hall. He began the concert with his own composition: Ex Nihilo, which roughly translates as Out of Nothing. The work primarily concentrated on texture and crescendo for its depiction of a transition from darkness to light. As a conductor, Pintscer has a clear beat, but uses his left hand more for theatrical gestures than for controlling details within the orchestra. Incidentally, he did not use a baton for his own piece but did for the remaining works.
Following a brief pause, during which the Hamburg Steinway was rolled into place, pianist Cédric Tiberghien mounted the stage for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, popularly known as the “Egyptian”. The source of the nick-name is that the work was mostly composed in Egypt, and that the second movement makes use of some exotic modes and scales that are associated with Middle-Eastern music. The concerto is primarily lyrical, although the finale has moments of virtuosity. Tiberghien offered a performance that was technically immaculate, musically poised, and beautifully colored – particularly in the central movement. The crisp and almost cool virtuosity of the finale brought the house down and the audience’s response was rewarded with an encore, Debussy’s The Submerged Cathedral – appropriately enough as the second half of the concert would feature another “water piece” by a French composer. Tiberghien’s weighting of chords and use of the pedal were exquisite.
Following intermission, Pintscher returned to lead the orchestra in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2. The work is a bit more accessible than his fully atonal works, but often the tonal center is difficult to discern. Pintscher led the work with a clear sense of direction.
I’ve been familiar with Debussy’s La Mer for about a quarter century, but this concert marked the first time I’ve heard it live. Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I found myself curiously let down by aspects of the performance. Instead of seductive textures and transparent voicing, I heard a rendition which was garish and – pardon the pun – splashy. Further, Pintscher’s frequent tempo changes disrupted the work’s continuity, as heard in recordings by Maazel and Boulez, among modern versions. Nevertheless, the performance had its moments, including Peter Otto’s lovely violin solo in the first movement and beautiful work by the harpists - and the generally spectacular playing brought the audience to its feet.