Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dohnanyi In Dvorak, Again

Last night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Christoph Dohnanyi lead the Boston Symphony in music of Ligeti, Mozart and Dvorak.

Dohnanyi obtains exceptional results with the Boston musicians. When Dohnanyi is on the podium, ensemble is tighter than the prevailing standard in Boston, balances are superior to those obtained by other conductors, and the orchestra’s sound demonstrates greater transparency than the Boston norm.

In fact, Dohnanyi achieves higher standards of execution and finesse with the Boston Symphony than the orchestra’s two most longstanding guest conductors, Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, under both of whom the Boston Symphony can sound flabby.

Dohnanyi has been working with the Boston Symphony on a regular basis only in recent years.

Dohnanyi and the Boston musicians had an unpleasant experience many years ago. In the 1990s, during his first rehearsal with the orchestra, Dohnanyi spent the entire time tuning the ensemble to his exacting specifications—and the musicians bristled. The result: Dohnanyi was replaced by another guest conductor, and Dohnanyi was not to appear again with the Boston Symphony for many seasons.

Relations between Dohnanyi and the orchestra clearly have been mended over the intervening years. The orchestra now shines under Dohnanyi. Dohnanyi attains results in Boston that no other conductor achieves.

The principal work on last night’s program was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

Dohnanyi is today’s finest Dvorak conductor, and this is so despite the fact that Dohnanyi’s Dvorak is more Germanic than Czech. Last season, Josh and I heard Dohnanyi lead the Boston Symphony in a truly excellent performance of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, and we did not want to miss hearing Dohnanyi lead the orchestra in yet another of Dvorak’s late symphonies.

Last night’s performance was very, very fine. Dohnanyi is an objective conductor, keener to reveal a work’s structure than to emphasize passing incident or emotion. For Dohnanyi, this approach works splendidly in the music of Dvorak (whereas it very definitely does not work in the music of Brahms, which in Dohnanyi’s hands is profoundly unimaginative). If I had one quibble with last night’s performance, it would be that the Scherzo lacked rusticity. The other three movements were, I thought, faultlessly done, even though no one would mistake the Boston Symphony for the Cleveland Orchestra (and the Boston Symphony’s emphatic and problematic brass section resists the ministrations even of Dohnanyi).

The concert began with a performance of Ligeti’s Double Concerto For Flute, Oboe And Orchestra, a composition whose first performance (by the Berlin Philharmonic) was conducted by Dohnanyi in 1972—five days after the tragic Munich Olympics concluded.

The two-movement Double Concerto is one of Ligeti’s most appealing works, mostly because its sound world is fanciful and “glittering” (the word the composer himself used in describing the composition). A proliferation of microscopic themes are juggled by the soloists, a full array of winds, and the lower strings. The result is an ear-beguiling series of ever-shifting, ever-captivating textures and thematic fragments. The Double Concerto—never performed by the Boston Symphony until this week—is an eerie, beautiful work.

Following the Ligeti, the orchestra offered a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. The soloist was Arabella Steinbacher, a German violinist making her Boston Symphony debut.

The Mozart obviously had been shortchanged during rehearsals; orchestral execution was not what one might have expected.

Since the Boston Symphony is not a Mozart orchestra, and since Dohnanyi is not a Mozart conductor, I did not enter the hall expecting much from the Mozart—and the musicians delivered about what I had expected.

It fell upon the soloist to attempt to carry the performance, and that probably was too much to ask. Steinbacher came alive in the Rondo, but otherwise the performance was a throwaway.

Steinbacher produced a beautiful sound. I would like to hear her with more congenial partners.

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