Dohnányi’s Last Stand

Musique funèbre (in memory of Bartók)
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Gil Shaham (violin)

The Cleveland Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 June, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

So eighteen years comes to an end – with a nine-day European tour, six cities and eight concerts. Perhaps symbolically, given that London is the home of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi its Principal Conductor, the Clevelanders gave their final two concerts with Dohnányi as Music Director in this city. (How different to the Orchestra’s first European tour in 1955 which visited ten countries for a total of 29 concerts and straddled two months.)And how they made the Barbican resound with probably the most beautiful sounds the Hall has ever heard.

The Bruckner Eighth Symphony the night before, full of burnished golden sounds and carefully plotted musical architecture was spectacular, and the first half of this concert showed the twentieth-century side of the Orchestra’s repertoire. Given that Funeral Music was written to the memory of Bartók on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of this death in 1955, there was a neat cohesion to the pairing, especially as Lutosławski was well known to the Orchestra (it had given the US première of his Concerto for Orchestra back in 1959, and he had conducted in Cleveland also); the Bartók played to Dohnányi’s own Hungarian heritage.

One interesting point, which would have struck anyone who had also been to the Bruckner, was that the platform layout was different for the Lutosławski. To British audiences the layout was ’normal’ – cellos to the conductor’s right, with basses behind them; but this is not Dohnányi’s usual plan – the strings are normally arrayed with antiphonal violins, cellos next to the firsts and basses in a line at the back of them. That is how they re-arranged themselves after the Lutosławski. For the first time in London (as far as I am aware – although the Orchestra played the Barbican in 1986) – the Clevelanders played on a completely flat stage. That is how they play at home in Severance Hall, and how they always request to play on tour, although in the Festival and Albert Halls, Birmingham and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall that is impossible. With the Barbican’s acoustic improvements this – as already intimated – afforded the sound an impressive natural warmth, which may have been improved by one-level seating (LSO please note), and for the first time I can recall, the brass and percussion did not overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. The stage extension was also up, although barely a chair leg or a string-player’s foot actually inched on to it, but the sound was incredibly immediate and supremely well-balanced, with climaxes and sudden pianissimos supremely clear in all their detail.

The spare textures of the Lutosławski were ameliorated into more lyrical strains in Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, with harp, wind, brass and percussion joining the massed strings and Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham. The fact that Britain rarely gets to see Shaham is a cause for disappointment. To my mind the best and most naturally gifted of the current crop of young virtuosi (Vengerov, Mullova, Chang, Bell – we see them so much more regularly). Shaham recorded the Bartók in December 1998 with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony (DG 459 639-2), and his performance seems to have matured even more. Dramatic contrasts, from string-savaging attack to simple and heartfelt lyricism, were in evidence from the very opening, with Dohnányi in ever-cool but acutely observed control. This is a difficult concerto for the audience (let alone the soloist), but this deeply satisfying performance will stay long in the memory.

The Clevelanders’ eighteen years with Dohnányi have been characterised by the clarity and accuracy of musical texture and fidelity to the score. Dohnányi is not an overtly emotional communicator, his conducting is not extrovert or flashy, even without scores, and he is not one to gild the musical lily, allowing the music its say without egging extra effect from wilful interventions. Some may argue this makes his performances cool or tame, but he – for me – is one of those conductors that allow the music to speak on its own terms. And it worked just as well in Brahms’s Second Symphony as it had done in Bruckner’s Eighth. A performance to treasure – complete with first movement repeat – with everything exactly in proportion and the final movement gaining momentum nicely to crown a great pair of concerts marking the end of an era.

The capacity audience wanted more and – perhaps surprisingly – Dohnányi obliged not with an orchestral showstopper, but with the Overture to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, given with just half of the strings. He left his baton backstage, the music lovingly moulded with his bare hands, even eliciting a rare smile in the process, and the Orchestra responded with both finesse and panache.

Dohnányi now becomes the Orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, while handing over to Franz Welser-Möst. Of all the recent music director appointments in America in the last three or four years, this seems to me the most astute. Welser-Möst may have been savaged by parochial London critics and may have been turned against London forever, but he seems to embody the non-flashy, musicianly qualities by which Dohnányi has guided the Clevelanders through the last two decades. I hope that the new partnership works well and that we may get to see them together in London. I suspect that Dohnányi has helped place Cleveland into pole position as the best orchestra in America; there was no doubting the world-beating quality of these London concerts, and one can only pray that now – with his attention focused on London – that the Philharmonia will move into a similar golden era.

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