"We give a great concert," Christoph von Dohnányi remarked about 15 years ago, "and George Szell gets a great review." This quip, made during a tour with the Cleveland Orchestra, was meant to illustrate the long shadow that Szell, Cleveland’s illustrious music director from 1946 to 1970, cast over the orchestra years after his death. No matter what it accomplished under Szell’s successors, the old man seemed to get all the credit. Reading the reviews, you’d think he was conducting from the grave. No wonder that an orchestra musician advised music lovers to "let the poor man rest."
No longer. When Dohnányi — who’ll be here to conduct the BSO next weekend — left Cleveland for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra this past summer after nearly two decades there, the orchestra bore his own indelible stamp. It is now routinely cited as America’s finest, and the fit between ensemble and conductor has been one that most orchestras only dream of. History repeats itself, of course: Cleveland’s new music director, Franz Welser-Möst, is doubtless now giving great concerts for which Dohnányi gets all the credit. (We’ll hear for ourselves when Welser-Möst and the orchestra visit Boston in February.)
But the Cleveland Orchestra of today is still a product of Szell’s adherence to the high performance standards he brought with him from Europe. Dohnányi added a richness and luxuriance to the Cleveland sound that’s anathema to the dry precision of the Szell days. He gave the players more freedom to respond to one another, and the playing is now more flexible, less strictly tied to the beat.
By general agreement, Dohnányi also treated the orchestra personnel with a new degree of dignity and respect. As he said in an interview: "Under Szell they had to be the best. With me they want to be the best."
Although Dohnányi made plenty of great recordings in Cleveland, the most comprehensive overview of their partnership is offered by "The Christoph von Dohnányi Compact Disc Edition," a 10-CD set of live performances issued by the Cleveland Orchestra last year. The collection covers both the span of his music directorship and the breadth of his repertoire. As if to put to rest any notion that the conductor was ever there to pander, the first disc opens with a blistering account of Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter ("Jacob’s Ladder"), one of Arnold’s thorniest and most ambitious works. More amazing still is the fact that it was taped at one of Dohnányi’s very first concerts as music director, in 1984.
Schoenberg’s music fills the rest of the first disc, reminding us that under Dohnányi the Cleveland has absorbed the syntax of modern and contemporary music in a way that would have been unthinkable under Szell. This is also shown in performances of works by composers as diverse as Lutos<t-38>l<t$z7b-1>⁄<z$b$t$>awski, John Adams (a beautiful performance of The Wound Dresser, with baritone Sanford Sylvan), Varèse, and Schnittke.
The more familiar pieces are no less impressive. Shostakovich’s First Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth (which Dohnányi and the Cleveland did here in October 2000) get muscular, intense interpretations; a 1998 reading of Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark shows how well Dohnányi could control one of the most riotous scores in the literature. A few performances — Mahler’s Second Symphony and Bruckner’s Fourth — fail to catch fire, but overall the set’s excellence reinforces the uncanny nature of the match. It’s not cheap – $175 from the orchestra’s on-line store, at www.clevelandorch.com — but it’s money well spent.
Dohnányi’s only other stint with the BSO was in 1989, and it produced one series of erratic performances amid reports that conductor and orchestra were not seeing eye to eye. A second weekend was cancelled due to "illness." One hopes some of that Cleveland magic will take hold next week when Dohnányi returns with two of his specialties, Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and Dvo<t-70>ˇ<t$>rák’s Ninth (From the New World). Asyla, a work by the young British composer Thomas Adès, kicks off the evening. The dates are Thursday November 21 at 8 p.m., Friday November 22 at 1:30, and Saturday November 23 again at 8. Tickets are $25 to $90; call (617) 266-1200.
Local and visiting: Hidden Boundaries, by Boston University’s own Marjorie Merryman, gets a hearing courtesy of the Radius Ensemble at 8 p.m. next Saturday, November 23, at Longy School of Music. The program also includes works by Arnold, Reicha, and Dvo<t-70>ˇ<t$>rák. Call (617) 625-2100. And violinist Itzhak Perlman is always welcome around these parts. For his Symphony Hall recital next Sunday, November 24, at 5 p.m., he brings a program of Bach, Beethoven, and Poulenc. That’s courtesy of the FleetBoston Celebrity Series. Call (617) 482-6661.