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CD Review

20th-Century Masterpieces

Joela Jones, piano
The Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
London 443173-2
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One commonly hears the complaint that young conductors tend to sound alike and that the days of conducting glory have passed, along with Tara and the kings. In most cases, people really mean that they can't find conductors as strong in the German and Central European repertory as those of the more-or-less recent past. Where's the Beethoven conductor at the level of Furtwängler and Mengelberg, the Mozart conductor who can reach Beecham and Szell, the Strauss conductor who gives you the highs of Reiner and Szell? Ubi sunt ? I've noticed that no one wrings their hands over finding a Debussy or Ravel conductor to rival Ansermet or a great modern specialist like Klemperer, Rosbaud, Koussevitzky, and Furtwängler, but those are other stories.

It's a bit early to issue pronouncements, so my short list of conductors who might make the pantheon includes Dohnányi at or very near the top. First, his core repertoire is the Wagnerian tradition and its Expressionist offshoots into the 20th century – Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Berg. Furthermore, he acquits himself well – even superbly, though he doesn't seem quite at home – in other strands: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann (his account of the symphonies is exceptional), Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Ravel. Second, in the days of cookie-cutter accounts of the classical Top 40 (does anyone really look forward to a Levine Beethoven cycle?), Dohnányi sweats to build a convincing, personal road. You may not agree with what he comes up with (I think here of an over-the-top, overheated Don Juan with the Vienna Philharmonic), but you can't dismiss it either. Dohnányi forces you to engage his ideas. His approach stands at the opposite end of the desire for the "definitive." With a reformer's zeal, he wants us to hear anew, unlike just about everyone except the early-music folks. His main fault, it seems to me, is that he doesn't want to relax. I've never heard a really unbuttoned performance. He grimaces, rather than smiles. Even his Dvořák broods, although in the case of Dohnányi's account of the Symphony #8, the results reveal a side of the composer missed by everyone else.

The Cleveland Orchestra has always had the reputation of cold, machine-like precision – to me, an unfair rap – ever since the days of Szell. For one thing, their recordings sounded dry, as if recorded in a box of saltines, the blame for this shared between Szell, who insisted on recording in Severance Hall (fine for live performances, but with certain disadvantages for recording), and Columbia, whose sound for everyone including Ormandy emphasized the bass and seemed to cut off highs. When the Cleveland changed labels to EMI, their sound immediately warmed up. No one who heard them live was surprised. Members of the VPO marveled at the velvet string sound. Some even followed the Cleveland from performance to performance when the orchestra toured Europe. Second, Szell's musical personality stressed a patrician elegance which many interpreted as coldness. To me, Szell's readings had plenty of juice – in fact, more than most – especially rhythmically, simply because the players came together and knew their place in the texture. His musical line crackled like a high-voltage wire. No one in the stereo era surpassed his Verdi Requiem for sheer emotional power. Only Reiner and Kempe could match him in Strauss, and his Wagner recordings make me regret he never got to record a complete opera. One does not normally think of any of these composers as lacking emotion.

Still, Dohnányi approaches music differently, and the orchestra reflects this change. The rhythmic and textural clarity remain, thank goodness, but Dohnányi wears his passions and enthusiasms like medals on his chest. I would sum up the difference between Szell and Dohnányi this way: If they were to discuss Goethe, for example, Szell would show his urbanity and his love through his command of detail; Dohnányi, like Schumann's Florestan, would be passionate in a voluble rush of detail. The point is, I suppose, that both could discuss Goethe as well as Florestan.

My heart leapt up when I beheld this CD: with the exception of the Martinů, the program lies right up Dohnányi's street. The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta in particular I've come to regard as my favorite Bartók orchestral work, but it doesn't forgive a sloppy performance. The piece depends on rhythm and counterpoint. A stuttering attack and murky texture dilute the work's effect. It's no accident that for years the classic recording remained Reiner and Chicago. Nevertheless, precision doesn't count for everything; you've simply got to bring it to the table.

From the opening notes of the slow fugue, low in the strings, Dohnányi and the orchestra imbue the work with something as ominous as a tornado watch. Throughout the first movement, Dohnányi winds the spring tighter and tighter and yet keeps the contrapuntal architecture lucid. Even the long diminuendo to the end (with the fugue subject turned upside-down) is a marvel. It doesn't die away to nothing, but to a threat. The release of energy in the next movement comes as a wallop. One of my gripes against all but very few conductors is that while they embrace the extremes of the dynamic range, loud and soft, they have very little idea either how to build from one to other or how to use the surge and recession to clarify the structure. It's almost a lost art. Dohnányi and Kleiber seem to me among the very few who still practice it.

One can sum up Dohnányi's strategy as "brood-and-explode," since he repeats this with the third and fourth movements. Bartók himself has built this motion into the piece. The trick is to connect the brooding to the explosion, something that really doesn't happen in, say, Solti's reading, which sacrifices long-range musical goals for the momentary jolt. There are jolts a-plenty from Solti, but they seem random, rather than inevitable outgrowths of a musical argument. Consequently, the reading loses power. Solti digs his elbows in your ribs, but you don't know why. Dohnányi's reading is of-a-piece. The precision of the Cleveland players packs a punch without resorting to extreme spikes in dynamics. The fact that you can hear the canonic entrances of the second movement jumping in at successive slivers of time, the repeated notes rat-a-tatting at you like gravel from a pea-shooter, will guy you like no mere forte. Bartók learned not only counterpoint (something they can teach you in a class), but, like Bach and late Beethoven, he also learned how to turn counterpoint into an expressive device. The fact that he uses fugues and canons throughout the work doesn't matter nearly as much as that the fugues and canons he writes churn your blood.

The third movement always struck me as Bartók's homage to Special Effects. Essentially, he inverts the instrumental groups' customary roles. The strings tend to provide the accents, jabs, and punctuation, and some of the percussion tries to sing like strings. The kettledrums slide and sustain notes, rather than boom. The xylophone swells and falls back on a single note. Meanwhile the strings come up with a jumpy, angular line. Bartók tries about almost every known string effect, including bowing with the wood rather than the hair and high, glassy harmonics. Dohnányi and the Cleveland particularly impress here by building tension without having to raise their voices. As soon as they get to the top of the arch, they immediately fall back, with yet another beautiful, long diminuendo. The effect is not so much one of compulsive strangeness, as is the case in so many performances of this work, but of a new, gorgeous lyricism.

The last movement lets go with a round of dance rhythms, not unlike the finale to the Concerto for Orchestra. I suppose it's all related to Hungarian folk music, in which I'm no expert, but to my ears I hear loopy sambas, Americana-like syncopations, and Russian klezmer thrown in with the Magyar village fiddling. A dance band had better keep good time, and there's little worse than a Phil-Spitalny portamento for fast dancers. Here the Cleveland runs into a spot of relative trouble, especially in the jumps and mood switches toward the end. Still, the martellato ("hammered") strokes from the strings are so together, that the sound of the striking becomes one more percussion effect. Furthermore, when the quieter passages come in, players manage to mark the contrast without dropping the intensity. If anything, the faster sections serve as a release. As far as I'm concerned, this performance ranks with Reiner's.

Martinů wrote his concerto for string quartet and orchestra in 1931 as a commission from the legendary Pro Arte Quartet. Although I can think of at least three marvelous works in this genre (by Schoenberg, Piston, and Benjamin Lees), Martinů's is the one that gets programmed, although it has always struck me as a transitional work on the road to his mastery as the century's second great Czech composer. He reached that level by the middle 1930s, but he underwent a hard, highly self-critical journey. He started out under the influence of Debussy and Ravel (an unusual choice of spiritual mentors; in Prague at the time, the Modern Composer would have meant primarily Richard Strauss and a Czech nationalist would have followed Dvořák). Moving to Paris in the 20s, he had a brief fling with jazz (that is, cabaret music derived mainly from white American bands), but the lasting influences were Stravinsky and especially the neo-classic Roussel. During all this, even as early as 1919, a unique take on Czech culture occasionally pokes through, sometimes as a stylistic mask covering a cosmopolitan modernism à la Stravinsky's Tango and Ragtime. Also like Stravinsky, he gradually absorbs folk sources so that the relationship reverses: modernism becomes a way of presenting his artistic identification with his roots. When neither composer thinks of these things consciously any longer, they have found themselves.

Martinů wrote marvelous string quartets (and chamber music in general), in that sense continuing the Dvořák tradition. Unfortunately, this work really doesn't hang together all that well. The two outer movements jerk rather than dance. In the climaxes, the scoring tends to thickness which mires the impact, as if adding more lines added more power and interest. Essentially, they don't breathe and they only fitfully sing. They also don't quite shake their Stravinsky-Roussel reminiscences. The slow movement's the winner here, pointing the way to the incredible Double Concerto of 1938.

Dohnányi uses the string principals of the orchestra as his quartet, in keeping with Martinů's concerto-grosso (rather than virtuoso) view in this concerto. Their account of the first movement is extraordinary for the chamber-like give-and-take between concertante and ripieno groups. This is a team effort, rather than the star turn some string quartets try to twist it to. The second movement takes this even further, where string quartet and orchestra tend to transform into one another. If I didn't have the score, in several places I'd have been hard put to tell which was sounding. This is not only ensemble playing of the highest order, but it grips you emotionally, far more than, say, Hickox's very good account on Virgin Classics with the Endellion Quartet. In the last movement, Dohnányi manages to coax the music to dance more as it does in the composer's maturity. This, I hasten to add, I don't find implicit in the score itself – again, thick instrumentation and a lack of space to let the musical ideas work on you. It's kind of like trying to look at a house built on too small a lot. However, the conductor has applied hindsight artistically. He has adjusted balance and supplied a vital rhythmic bounce. There's little point in calling this the best recorded performance of this concerto, because it doesn't compete with even five other recordings. Still, it gives a measure of Dohnányi's ability – similar to Stokowski's, but without the rewrites and edits – to tweak a performance toward a desired sound.

Janáček has always struck me as one of the oddest ducks in music. After years of writing blameless (even perhaps respectable) Romantic, nationalist music, he suddenly, in old age, bursts the mold and comes up with one one-of-a-kind masterpiece after another. Like Ives, it makes no sense to call it modern music, because it's too much the product of an individual and apparently unrelated to anything else going on. It's an easy thing, of course, to be original: most eccentrics are original, and there's no shortage. It's not that easy to be both original and compelling. Almost everything about the Capriccio is strange – beginning with its instrumentation (piano left hand, brass, flute, and piccolo). Janáček wrote it for a pianist named Hollmann, who, like the more famous Wittgenstein, had lost his right arm in World War I. We can instructively compare Janáček's approach to the left-handed soloist with Ravel's. Through trompe l'oreille tricks which mimic Lisztian pyrotechnics, Ravel's concerto seems ultimately to want to integrate the soloist among two-handed soloists – the piano sounds as if played by two hands. Janáček originally thought of calling his work "Defiance." The piano writing is so spare, it makes no attempt to fool anybody. The composer never lets us forget the missing arm, and perhaps the anger at the loss. The brass accompaniment ranges from short stabs (often imitated by the piano), to occasional held chords, brief fanfares and hard-edged dances. For the most part, the texture is hard-edged, with the only warmth provided by rare lyrical passages from the flute, usually shouted down by piano and brass. The great change comes in the last movement, where the piano and brass begin to accompany a flute melody that begins to take wing and finally triumphs. Unusually (again), it's not the piano that wins in this mini-concerto, but the flute.

Do such small forces require a conductor? In this case, yes. Janáček's late music usually consists of short bits juxtaposed and contrasted and sudden stops, starts, and switches. The brass entrances are completely exposed. I'm sure a professional group could lick these problems with enough rehearsal, but a conductor can certainly solve them more easily. Of course, it depends on which conductor. Again, Dohnányi brings his intense sensibility to the music as well as his ability to direct traffic. The crisp attacks inject urgency into the work and the sustained passages hold their breath until the next outburst. The radiance of the final movement both surprises and convinces. Dohnányi's poetry tells us that the victory gained is a realistic one, because the music's spirit comes to grips with trouble and refuses to accept rosey dreams. This work will probably never be popular – too angry and too tense – but it seems to me – along with Elgar's very different cello concerto – one of the great musical documents of the First World War.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz