Adams
The Wound-Dresser (11 October 1990)
Bartók
Divertimento for strings (07/05/98)
Beethoven
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 (20/09/01)
Berlioz
The Damnation of Faust – three orchestral excerpts (08/02/96)
Brahms
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83 (17/09/98)
Bruckner
Symphony No.4 in E flat, “Romantic” (18/05/00)
Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (24/09/98)
Delius
Irmelin – Prelude (13/10/88)
Franck
Symphony in D minor (11/05/95)
Haydn
Symphony No.88 in G (02/10/97)
Hindemith
Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (26/05/94)
Ives
Central Park in the Dark (01/10/98)
Janacek
Sinfonietta (24/09/98)
Liszt
Les Préludes (25/05/1995)
Lutoslawski
Funeral Music (20/09/01)
Mahler
Symphony No.2 in C minor, “Resurrection” (26/03/98)
Mendelssohn
Symphony No.4 in A, “Italian” (25/09/97)
Prokofiev
Symphony No.1 in D, “Classical” (08/01/2000)
Schnittke
(K)ein Sommernachtstraum (12/01/95)
Schoenberg
A Survivor from Warsaw (19/12/85)
Die Jakobsleiter (04/10/84)
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31 (04/05/89)
Schubert
Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485 (23/01/97)
Shostakovich
Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10 (17/09/98)
Sibelius
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82 (03/06/99)
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36 (14/09/00)
Varèse
Ecuatorial (19/12/85)
Wagner
Rienzi – Overture (17/09/96)
Various artists with The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi
CD No: MMA-01032 (10 CDs)
Duration: 12 hours 12 minutes
Reviewed: May 2002
I interviewed Christoph von Dohnányi a few years ago; he laid his beliefs firmly on the line. These are enshrined in this 10-CD set that marks his final season as The Cleveland Orchestra’s Music Director. After eighteen years at the helm of one of the world’s finest orchestras he steps down in the summer of 2002 – his final concerts as MD are in London on June 13 and 14 when The Cleveland Orchestra gives two concerts at the Barbican.
His principles include the mixing of music from all times – a programme juxtaposing a Haydn Mass with Schoenberg’s Erwartung was a suggestion to me; and he has paired Mozart with Webern on CD. In this set, CD9 is selected with no concern for stylistic divide – a welcome decision – and embraces Delius, Ives, Haydn, Varèse and Janacek.
Then there’s his requirement for antiphonal violins, insisting on them in fact (with cellos left-centre, double basses behind them); that’s not always apparent on Dohnányi’s Decca recordings – a bone of contention for him I know.
Equally characteristic is that the first CD is provocatively devoted to Schoenberg – the knotty and complex, unfinished Die Jakobsleiter, which culminates in the ’Grand Symphonic Interlude’, an orchestral section that finds Schoenberg on the edge – rarefied and distant textures and a textural economy more Webern’s territory that Schoenberg’s. The angular, hyper-controlled language, which can seem impenetrable, Dohnányi makes intelligible, revealing how this music can communicate. Eight fine soloists and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus also take part. A Survivor from Warsaw is rather underplayed if accurate, while the great Op.31 Variations – one of Schoenberg’s masterpieces – receives a superb performance, refined, transparent and expressive.
Dohnányi is an intelligent musician, one who reveals music lucidly; he is structure-conscious, objective, sometimes literal; clarity of detail and good timbral blend are important to him; he produces a lean, muscular sound; his tendency is to underplay rather than be showy or excessive. At its best, Dohnányi’s no-frills music-making makes good listening. With a set like this, there are high points and lower ones.
The pairing of two Russian symphonies, Tchaikovsky 4 and Shostakovich 1, proves a good guide. The pieces were written not far apart (1878/1925) and are related by key and subjectivity – the neuroses and doubt of the former, the inner-world and tart comment of the latter. The Shostakovich emerges here as less a concerto for orchestra than is often the case, the motivic construction aided by Dohnányi’s crystal-clear balances and a chamber music-like input from orchestral soloists that occasionally detaches the sarcasm but enhances Shostakovich’s private-domain expression.
Yet the timpani interjection in the ’Finale’ lacks drama, while the Tchaikovksy in its opening measures is emotionally under-charged (similar to Dohnányi’s VPO recording); things improve with the waltz episode when woodwind dance above filigree strings to disarming effect, though the first movement fails to take wing. The middle movements pay tribute to the Orchestra’s solo artistry – John Mack (presumably) outstanding in the opening oboe solo of the ’Canzone’ – and to the dexterity, lightness and unanimous ensemble of the strings in the pizzicato ’Scherzo’. Overall though there’s a lack of heart if no lack of care.
Bruckner and Wagner go well together. The overture to Rienzi is atmospheric, the noble tune spacious and inward, the faster sections perhaps too civilised, what might be considered an essential vulgarity tamed. The Bruckner 4, which Dohnányi and the Clevelanders recorded for Decca a decade ago, remains flowing, light-toned and pastoral.
Other pieces that Dohnányi has recorded commercially include the Lutoslawski and Mendelssohn. Both serve as reminders of Dohnányi’s strengths – twentieth-century music and scores requiring elegance, articulacy and transparency. The Mendelssohn is one of the set’s highlights, relaxed, pointed and conducted with affection, the first-movement repeat omitted in Vienna now in place. Schubert 5 is similarly shapely and lovingly crafted, as is Haydn 88 and its twentieth-century counterpart, Prokofiev’s ’Classical’, though a bit more timpani would have been welcome in the ’Finale’. Franck’s Symphony is given a vital performance, no sludge or soupy indulgence; the music has direction, power and sweep, a light, expressive touch when needed with colour and detail an intrinsic part of the whole.
Lutoslawski’s tribute to Bartók requires virtuosity – duly delivered – and a belief that music from our own time is every bit as good as that which preceded last century’s radical re-think of creative possibilities. This Dohnányi possesses. A pointed account of Bartók’s Divertimento swaps native soil for urbanity; something rather classical emerges, and if the music could be wittier and starker, it couldn’t be more sophisticated – nor should it. The relative gentleness doesn’t mask the composer’s inner turmoil, which spills over in the central ’Molto adagio’.
Of other twentieth-century selections, the Ives is shadowy and sinister, its shifting harmonies and subtle hues especially well done; so too the surreal Varèse (with Günter Reich, the rather impassive narrator in Survivor from Warsaw, as the baritone on top of the Spanish text). This is no lip-service rendition, and Dohnányi gives a melt-in-the-mouth account of the unexpected and welcome Delius, and a surprisingly languorous rendition of Debussy’s Faune, music with twentieth-century anticipations, played here with sensitivity, warmth and, as throughout, woodwind playing of considerable personality. Schnittke’s typical nightmare-hounding of a simple tune is given an exemplary reading – one to convince this somewhat ambivalent listener.
Janacek’s Sinfonietta is an ideal Dohnányi piece. The brass fanfares have no lack of exhilaration, if not quite the appropriate martial quality; as a whole this is a fine advert for the Orchestra’s lithe, unforced attack. Hindemith’s ’take’ on Weber can be a little stiff but concludes exuberantly. John Adams’s setting of Walt Whitman’s remembrance of working in a Civil War hospital is poignant, baritone Sanford Sylvan making much of the words against Dohnányi’s sensitive realisation of the Coplandesque orchestration.
Regarding presentation, the CDs are contained in three separate boxes housed in a slipcase. The notes mix ones on the music with anecdotes on Dohnányi and reprints of articles marking various stages of the conductor’s tenure. The sound is good if a little variable – sometimes dull and restricted, although detail is always clear. Surely a few seconds of pre-music audience participation could have been retained? Applause is quickly faded, which is fine, or removed completely, while gaps between movements can, in context, be too short or too long; nor is editing during movement-breaks or within music a standard-setter – a few (poorly-made) splices are noticed (four in the Adams!) – yet only one date per work is listed! Four seconds between the close of Adams and the beginning of Mahler is unthinking! The latter is an objective account – not sensational, the first movement dogged and gathering intensity in its wake, Dohnányi concentrating on the big design and the journey to the apotheosis; on the way the ’Andante moderato’ second movement trips delightfully and enjoys elegant playing.
Beethoven 5 and the Brahms concerto are paired. The former is powerful and fleet but rather too scrubbed and straight-laced. It’s also a bit ’chuggy-chuggy’ in the slow movement and this rhythmic insistence does lose the symphony its remit of darkness to light; such momentous happenings are surely not so pre-determined. In the second of Brahms’s piano concertos, Garrick Ohlsson is the soloist, one who is technically patrician and as musically acute as the conductor. They work well together. Lyrical reflection and intimate dialogue come of well, yet there are few moments that are frisson-making. One point worth noting, because of Dohnányi’s layout of the strings, is that the cello solo in the third movement is now akin to chamber music, the cellist next to the pianist rather than on the other side of the platform. Throughout this set, antiphonal exchanges from the two violin sections are constantly illuminating – in Liszt and Berlioz certainly, both highlights, respectively idyllic and striding, and agile, poetic and rousing.
Everything in this set emanates from Severance Hall except Sibelius 5, recorded in “downtown” Cleveland’s Allen Theatre; a temporary home during 1999 while Severance was refurbished. Dohnányi’s account of music not associated with him is ultimately small-scale. Although there is much that is impressive in terms of nuance and clarity, there is also something too direct, a dimension missing, despite conspicuous success with keeping the ’Andante mosso, quasi allegretto’ on its toes and unusually seamless.
The real highlights are Adams, Berlioz, Debussy, Franck, Liszt, Lutoslawski, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Schoenberg’s Variations, Schubert and all of CD 9; to various degrees there are admirable aspects to return to in the remainder, and it’s good to have a centred Der Jakobsleiter. I would have liked Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (played at the concert of 8 January 2000 I believe), which might have made an interesting envoi to the ’Resurrection’ (there’s room!), and also the commission from Harrison Birtwistle, premiered in January 2002.
In many ways, Dohnányi rarely puts a foot wrong. Yet there are times when more temperament, a bigger gesture, something that thrills to the core is needed. Discernment and erudition is omnipresent, as is an orchestral sound that is gracious and open, cultured and committed.

 

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