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Dohnanyi's Brahms Wins the Day

Alban GerhardtAt 76 years old, Christoph von Dohnányi is one of the elder statesmen of conducting, well known in this country from his 18-year tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra (1984-2002). On Thursday he graced Washington with a hearty central-European program of Bartók, Schumann, and Brahms. A relaxed and fluid account of the Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra opened the evening. Apart from a brief sour moment among the violins, the National Symphony Orchestra responded well to Dohnányi’s precise and gentle leadership. Concertmaster Nurith Bar-Josef had nice opportunities to shine in the solo passages. The Molto Adagio flowed expansively, the Allegro assai had – naturally – more bite and reminded of the Haydn sonatas heard on Tuesday; less enchanting though the whole thing may have been.

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Dohnányi / D'Albert/ Enescu, Works for Cello and Orchestra, Gerhardt / BBCScO / Kalmar
Strange that I had not heard of German cellist Alban Gerhardt. It is difficult to align his youthful good looks (although that hair is just two years from being designated a comb-over) with the fact that he already looks back on an illustrious 15-year career in Europe. He’s played with just about every important orchestra on the continent and under the most prominent conductors. In the U.S., too, he’s left a mark with appearances that included Boston and Chicago and – locally – the Baltimore SO. If his bio made for impressive reading, the opening movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto did not make for impressive listening. Hesitant and wooden, some notes were whiney, others just approximated. Mr. Gerhardt warmed up over the course of the double-stop-riddled concerto, but neither playing nor tone became very involving. And not all blame for that can be laid at the feet of Schumann for having provided a somewhat less than perfect concerto. (All quite unlike what I heard on his most recent CD: Hyperion’s opening shot in their Romantic Cello Concerto series which includes the Ernő von Dohnányi – grandfather to Christoph – Konzertstück.) The finale is perhaps most likable, sounding more like his symphonies. The NSO played faultlessly, steadily, and remarkably well (woodwinds and strings deserve special mention) but didn’t start a fire where the soloist didn’t ignite one. It all made for very pleasant – just not exciting – listening.

Christoph von DohnányiBroad and muscular the timpani-driven opening of Brahms’s first symphony… before a gentler tone enters – only for the swell to return like the tide. Brahms is one of the surprisingly few composers to have composed Romantic symphonies in the classic(al) symphonic form. Apart from Schumann, Schubert, Beethoven (who already left that form behind in the 9th), we might include Tchaikovsky and Dvořák among the first-rate composers who operated in that field. That our idea of a symphony is so closely linked to their model says something about the quality of their output. And Brahms’s work is of the highest quality, indeed. It may seem silly to us to look back on the great Brahms’s worries about writing a symphony in a post-Beethoven musical world, but whether his doubts and patience were justified or necessary, the result certainly was worth waiting for. Few composers (any?) have written such a masterwork as their first symphony. Indeed, it is impossible for casual ears to detect any difference in maturity and mastery among the four that constitute Brahms’s entire output in that genre.

Particularly nice, then, to hear a splendid performance of it under Dohnányi. Levelheaded and involving, I wouldn’t expect any other orchestra to turn in a better one on any given Thursday. If I can say “plain good” without insinuating damnation by faint praise, I’ll do that. The orchestra noticeably followed every one of Dohnanyi’s instructions and gestures incisively. The brass delivered time and again. It was a good thing to have heard – and can be heard again this afternoon at 1:30PM and on Saturday at 8PM. Tim Page's review - more enthusiastic, still - can be read at the Washington Post's Web site: "Dohnanyi's NSO Debut Is One for the Ages."


Anonymous said...

I think you left out Mendelssohn, unless there's something about his symphonies (aside from the "Lobgesang" or the maybe the "Reformation") that don't fit in with the classical style. Perhaps you don't consider him "first rate"... but I think that would be a bit unfair.

jfl said...

I suppose Mendelssohn - with his 60% hit-rate (as far as form, not quality is concerned) - belongs. My favorite is the 2nd, though --"Stehet auf von den Toten"-- and perhaps that's why I was not thinking of it at the time.