Carnegie Hall, New York; January 24 and 25, 2002–Twentieth century angst and 19th century affirmation were joined in the trio of New York concerts Christoph von Dohnanyi and his Cleveland Orchestra brought to Carnegie Hall January 24, 25, and 26. Each program opened with grim modern works and closed with a Beethoven Symphony–the life-enhancing Seventh, the triumphantly grandiose Fifth, and the Ninth’s affirmation of brotherhood and joy.

Opening the concert on the 24th, Witold Lutoslawski’s 1955 Musique funèbre commemorates the 10th anniversary of the death of Béla Bartók, whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and late quartets are influences on the score. Like much of Bartók’s music, the Lutoslawski somehow manages to blend warmth and stark austerity. This deeply moving work for strings drew some incredible sounds from the Clevelanders–deep,  rich bass, magically delicate plucking, and exquisitely shaded coloring, whether in whispered pianissimos or in the firm climaxes. Following the concisely argued Lutoslawski came Wolfgang Rihm’s Concerto, Dithyrambe for String Quartet and Orchestra, a lengthy, nerve-frazzling one-movement work. The Emerson Quartet was remarkable in its skittish part, which requires fast and furious playing virtually throughout the piece. They’re interrupted and/or accompanied by bursts of color in the full orchestra which sometimes explodes as if to say “enough,” but in vain. The work finally tapers down to, if not resolution, a sense of exhaustion. Concerto reflects Rihm’s statement that “the orchestra is body inside which the nerves (the quartet) dance,” but as a listening experience I found it neither rewarding nor engendering a desire for repetition. In fairness, the capacity audience gave the performers a huge ovation; whether as a reward for the sheer physical effort of the playing or as an appreciation of Rihm’s music is questionable.

Oddly, audience response to Harrison Birtwistle’s The Shadow of the Night the next evening was more polite than enthusiastic, although this knotty work proved far more stimulating. Birtwistle’s work deals with “melancholy,” and is inspired by various interpretations of Dürer’s engraving, Melencolia I, the subject of an earlier Birtwistle piece. Based in part on John Dowland’s the “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” Shadow fragments Dowland’s melody, distributing its pieces among the orchestra’s soloists and sections. Birtwistle has likened the transformations of the Dowland melody to “the moon shining through passing clouds,” resulting in rapidly shifting musical landscape of brilliant colors and fascinating local episodes. Here, as throughout these concerts, the orchestra was breathtaking in its virtuosity, meeting every possible demand of the complex score. It was preceded by Sibelius’ Night Ride And Sunrise, a depiction of a lunar trip through dark Nordic forests, awe at Natures’ power reinforcing a misty northern sunrise, disquietingly distant from the brilliant Mediterranean dawn-bursts of more southerly composers. Again, the orchestra’s breathtaking dynamic gradations and superb wind playing, imaginative phrasing and tonal depth were wonders in themselves, though Dohnanyi didn’t quite capture the night fantasies at the core of Sibelius’ vision.

On the 24th, Beethoven’s celebration of life and joy, his Seventh Symphony, got a swift, powerful reading in the Toscanini-Szell tradition, with a nod to the current fashion for supposed historical authenticity that went beyond divided violins to clipped phrase endings of the larghetto’s theme. The 4th movement romp brought out the dance qualities of the work but the whole was more to admire than to be moved by. The next evening the Fifth Symphony’s grandiose triumph of the spirit scored through the orchestra’s virtuosity. Though Dohnanyi assembled the full orchestra, their sound seemed scaled down, partly a result of dynamic relationships between soft and loud, partly because of the transparency of the playing. Here, speeds were more traditional, yet rhythms crisp and the effect powerful. Such inventive programs help demonstrate why Dohnanyi and his spectacular orchestra’s Carnegie Hall concerts are perennial season highlights.–Dan Davis

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