Various: Various works

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Cleveland Orchestra
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Christoph Von Dohnányi Edition
WORKS: Various works
PERFORMER: Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
CATALOGUE NO: (distr. +1 216 231 7478; www.clevelandorch.com)
Christoph von Dohnányi’s final concert as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra is scheduled for 14 June at the Barbican Centre, London, and this handsomely recorded set of broadcast performances is the orchestra’s tribute to his wide-ranging sympathies and legacy of solid achievement during two decades at the helm. Performances date from as early as 1984 (Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter) and as recently as last year (a concert nine days after the September 11 terrorist attacks yields Lutoslawski’s Musique funèbre and a bracing Beethoven Fifth). In all, this collection presents 28 works by 26 composers, ranging chronologically from Haydn (Symphony No. 88) to John Adams (The Wound-Dresser). The German symphonic mainstream is prominent, but so, too, is 20th-century repertoire, with works by Ives (Central Park in the Dark), Varèse (Ecuatorial) and Schnittke ((K)ein Sommernachtstraum) to set alongside classics by Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók, Shostakovich and Janácek.

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Dohnányi’s seriousness of artistic purpose merits great respect, so I’m disappointed at being unable to respond with genuine enthusiasm to his performances, which, although technically well prepared, tend to seem expressively cautious and conceptually staid. The best of them flow well and sound earnest. Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra unfolds naturally, forgoing expressionistic extremes, and Dohnányi clearly relishes realising the collage effects of Schnittke and Ives. He sometimes adopts comparatively brisk tempi: in Sibelius’s Fifth the results are trenchant, but his Bruckner Fourth flirts with being literal, superficial and unatmospheric, and the strictly in-tempo opening phrases of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto (with Garrick Ohlsson as valiant soloist) correct tradition without going on to justify the insight. Whatever the tempo, Dohnányi often lacks infectious verve or energy. Sparkling passages like the opening movements of Mendelssohn’s Italian and Prokofiev’s Classical symphonies sound comfortable rather than scintillating (partly because of Dohnányi’s reluctance to encourage crisp articulation), and pieces that call for grand gestures, such as Liszt’s Les préludes and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, suffer from a surfeit of well-mannered musicality. In short, Dohnányi deserves gratitude for having maintained Cleveland’s high orchestral standards, but the responsible music-making that is his hallmark does not regularly produce performances that cause one’s spirits to soar.