(The) Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi - Live Performances 1984 through 2001
I started listening to this set immediately after emerging from an extended session with EMI’s ‘Great Conductors of the 20th Century’. An unwise move I have to admit‚ though not because Christoph von Dohnányi is anything less than an accomplished musician‚ or the Cleveland Orchestra less than worldclass in terms of its musicianship and virtuosity. But in comparison with say Koussevitzky‚ Fricsay or Markevitch‚ Dohnányi is decidedly ‘low key’. He also had a pretty hard act to follow: ‘We give a great concert‚’ he says in one of the booklet interviews‚ ‘and George Szell gets a great review.’ Though long dead and frequently chided as a calculating martinet‚ in the minds of many collectors Szell still is the Cleveland Orchestra. Even the charismatic Lorin Maazel (Szell’s successor) couldn’t dislodge that indelible association.
One might‚ I suppose‚ make similar claims on behalf of Fritz Reiner’s relationship with the Chicago Symphony‚ except that in certain key respects Sir Georg Solti assumed Reiner’s fiery mantle. Dohnányi is not like that. He is definitely not your classic autocratic maestro. Indeed‚ his Cleveland sojourn (his stint as Musical Director stretches from 1984 to later this year) has witnessed a gradual easing of tension. Note that I use the word ‘tension’ rather than ‘intensity’. Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter for example was one of Dohnányi’s earliest Cleveland repertory innovations – the broadcast included here dates from 1984 – and you could hardly wish for a more sensitive‚ textureconscious or lyrical account of this challenging and in many respects moving score. And it is intense‚ an excellent choice in fact for launching this handsome retrospective. Soprano Helga Pilarczyk excels as The Dying One (the closing ‘Grand Symphonic Interlude’ will take your breath away) whereas Günter Reich delivers a dramatic but compassionate declamation in A Survivor from Warsaw. Both here and in Schoenberg’s seminal Variations for Orchestra‚ Op 31‚ Dohnányi’s principal interpretative virtues rise impressively to the fore‚ and by that I mean musical intelligence‚ an impeccable ear and a facility for clarifying even the most heavily scored passages.
So much for the first CD. The second opens to a noble‚ warmly blended account of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture‚ less imperious than Szell’s but no less refined. In the case of Bruckner’s Fourth‚ Dohnányi and his orchestra enter into competition with their own 1989 Decca recording. The passage of some 10 years witnessed a softening of texture (facilitated in part by the refurbished Severance Hall) and‚ more significantly‚ Dohnányi’s latterday preference for an ‘oldstyle’ orchestral layout‚ where first and second violins are separated. I prefer the new version’s extra warmth‚ sense of freedom and spontaneity and I would say that of all the works programmed where Dohnányi also made a commercial recording‚ this is the one case where I would definitely choose the live relay.
Disc three couples a pert‚ attentively phrased Shostakovich First from 1998 with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth from two years later that lacks the requisite ‘con anima’ in the opening movement but makes amends with superlatively played accounts of the Andantino and Scherzo. A powerful 2001 reading of Lutos¹awski’s homage to Bartók‚ Musique funèbre‚ opens the fourth CD (again there’s a fine Decca predecessor) followed by a rather leaden Bartók Divertimento. Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony enjoys a spectacularly deft finale and Dohnányi invites more comparisons with Szell in Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis‚ which is lighterhearted than Szell’s and almost as well played though the 1994 sound is oddly ‘unstereophonic’.
First up on CD five is Schubert’s Fifth‚ a thoughtfully considered reading with a memorably tender Andante. Sanford Sylvan is the poetic baritone soloist in John Adams’s lyrical but disturbing The Wounddresser‚ a 20minute setting of Whitman poems about casualties in battle‚ most tellingly sustained under Dohnányi’s direction. As to Mahler symphonies‚ the choice of No 2 usefully supplements Dohnányi’s variable Mahler series of Decca (he hasn’t as yet taken No 2 into the recording studio) though I couldn’t in all honesty say that it adds much to our understanding of the piece. The opening is neat but fussy and the ensuing narrative best where‚ towards the end of the first movement‚ Dohnányi makes Mahler’s portamentos sound entirely natural. The rest is sober‚ incisive‚ well built and nicely sung but doesn’t exactly raise the roof. Neither do his accounts of Beethoven’s Fifth from 2001 (though I liked the lyrically projected cellos in the finale) or Brahms Second Piano Concerto from 1998 which‚ although Garrick Ohlsson despatches the notes with intelligence‚ barely touches the work’s heroic soul.
The eighth CD opens to a cogently stated account of Liszt’s Les Préludes that benefits from divided string bands and manages to avoid unwanted bombast. In the case of three orchestral excerpts from Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust‚ comparisons with Szell on an earlier Cleveland set (also available from www.clevelandorchestra.com) find Dohnányi’s performances elegant and lightfooted but lacking the malevolent wit of his predecessor‚ especially in the ‘Minuet des Follets’. I like the Brahmsian glow given to Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune (Delius’s Irmelin Prelude – which opens CD nine – is similarly mellow) but find that for all its transparency‚ Dohnányi’s 1997 Mendelssohn Italian lacks a crucial sense of joyfulness.
CD nine continues with a nimble Haydn Symphony No 88 (the Largo being its most memorable feature) and a predictably evocative account of Ives’s Central Park in the Dark. There’s also Varèse’s Ecuatorial and Janá¶ek’s Sinfonietta‚ a 1998 performance that I prefer to Szell’s overemphatic Sony recording from 1965.
Finally‚ Alfred Schnittke’s weirdly oscillating (K)ein Sommernachtstraum – a sort of Mozartean pastische that turns nasty – bizarrely sandwiched between Franck’s Symphony and Sibelius’s Fifth. The Franck is good but unexceptional‚ the Sibelius lively but at times a little tentative. It is also harderedged than the rest‚ principally because of the less sympathetic acoustic of Cleveland’s Allen Theatre – a favoured venue while Severance Hall was being refurbished.
Something of a curate’s egg‚ then‚ though with plenty worth hearing. Documentation is informative‚ the sound quality‚ for the most part‚ very good indeed‚ more warmly blended than analytical and a welcome relief after the unflattering monochrome of some of the Orchestra’s older recordings. Performancewise‚ Schoenberg‚ Wagner‚ Bruckner‚ Shostakovich‚ Hindemith‚ Lutos¹awski‚ Prokofiev‚ Adams‚ Liszt‚ Debussy‚ Ives and Janá¶ek come off best – not a bad score. Other works are more worthily than distinctively conducted‚ satisfying to hear in concert no doubt (Dohnányi’s performances are rarely less than satisfying) but ultimately uncompetitive in comparative listening terms.