Sunday, December 06, 2009

Dohnanyi In Boston

Last night, Joshua and I went to Symphony Hall to hear Christoph Dohnanyi lead the Boston Symphony.

The concert was excellent. Under Dohnanyi, the Boston Symphony sounded like an orchestra of the first rank.

Ensemble was tight. Balance between sections was better than usual. Rhythms were crisp and exact. The strings offered more transparency than the Boston norm.

The Boston Symphony’s thick, flabby sound had disappeared for the night, replaced with something resembling sheen and finesse.

It is amazing what a master technician can do for an orchestra. In only three rehearsals (plus one “public rehearsal”), Dohnanyi had succeeded in cleaning up the orchestra’s roughhewn sound to a remarkable degree and instilling the level of precision expected as a matter of course in Cleveland. I have never heard Boston play to better effect.

The concert began with Bartok’s Divertimento For String Orchestra, the composer’s final completed composition as a European. The Divertimento, a product of August 1939, the last month in which Europe was at peace, was a Paul Sacher commission (as had been 1936’s Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta). The Divertimento is one of Bartok’s most immediately-appealing works, avoiding much of the darkness of its 1936 predecessor.

Dohnanyi is an excellent Bartok conductor, and he obtained an excellent performance of the Divertimento from the Boston musicians.

The second work on the program was Martinu’s Violin Concerto No.2, commissioned by the Boston Symphony for Mischa Elman and premiered in Boston in 1943. The Violin Concerto No. 2 is one of several Martinu works commissioned by the Boston Symphony.

I had not heard the Martinu since I was in high school, and I was pleased to become reacquainted with the work. In fact, I wish the musicians had played it through twice.

Martinu was at his peak in the 1940’s, and his Violin Concerto No. 2, in three movements, is one of his finer concertante works, perhaps matched only by the Piano Concerto No. 4.

The concerto is, however, not as tightly-argued as the composer’s symphonies. Much of the writing resembles a motor idling, and there are no satisfying culminations to resolve the first and third movements. It is easy to understand why the concerto has never entered the repertory.

The Boston soloist was Frank Peter Zimmermann, one of today’s finest violinists. Zimmermann gave an intelligent account of the concerto, always trying to find content in the pages of passagework and avoiding schmaltz in the Andante Moderato. The orchestra sounded smashing.

The concert concluded with a Dohnanyi specialty, Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8.

Dohnanyi is probably the world’s leading exponent of this most Czech of Dvorak symphonies, a remarkable fact given that Dohnanyi is an “objective” conductor and not given to gemutlich performances.

Dohnanyi offered a very Classical account of the score, and it was a very successful one. If the Boston Symphony were “his” orchestra, Dohnanyi no doubt would have offered more shading and more rubato. Nonetheless, this was about as fine a performance of the Dvorak as one is likely to hear these days—and the orchestra’s playing was on a very high level.

If the Boston Symphony Board Of Trustees knew what it was doing, it would replace James Levine with Dohnanyi tomorrow. With Dohnanyi at the helm, the Boston Symphony would, I am certain, return to greatness within three years.


  1. Wow! You know soooo much about orchestras and stuff! How can one man know so much?

  2. It's a grave responsibility as well as a heavy burden.

  3. And, by the way, Tottering, . . .

    I can see that you come to me from the Boston Symphony website.

  4. Dohnanyi can make any orchestra sound good. That is his greatest gift. I’m not so sure, however, that he is a significant “interpreter”.

    You are right about Dohnanyi’s Dvorak. His Dvorak is very, very good. He programmed Dvorak often in Cleveland, and I cannot recall being disappointed by one of his Dvorak performances.