Christoph von Dohnányi was Music Director of The Cleveland Orchestra from 1984 to 2002 and now holds the title Music Director Laureate. He paid a rare return visit to Severance Hall this weekend to conduct works by Hans Werner Henze and Gustav Mahler, composers with whom Dohnányi is closely associated. Judging from the full house on Saturday, 2 March, and the response of both orchestra and audience, it was a welcome return.

Christoph von Dohnányi © NDR / Andras Garrels
Christoph von Dohnányi
© NDR / Andras Garrels

Dohnányi opened the program with an orchestral suite from Hans Werner Henze’s opera The Bassarids, composed in 1964–66 to a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman based on Euripides’ The Bacchae and first conducted by Dohnányi himself. At Dohnányi’s request in 2005 Henze arranged three sections from the opera’s third act as “Adagio, Fugue and Dance of the Maenads” for orchestral, weaving the vocal lines into the orchestral texture. The orchestra required is enormous, including two pianos, two harps and a huge battery of percussion. Although the work was programmed long ago, it was a fitting tribute to the composer, who died in October 2012.

Henze claimed the influence of Mahler’s First Symphony during the composition of The Bassarids (thus, a neat connection on this program); however, Henze’s soundworld is reminiscent of Alban Berg, with, at times, the rhythmic drive of Stravinsky. The orchestra, despite its size, is often used sparingly, with just a few instruments. The orchestrations are arresting, beginning with string tremolos and long sinuous melody line, radiant climaxes with brass fanfares, ringing with glockenspiel and other struck percussion; at other times Henze writes passages of utmost calm. There are searing dissonances and serenely tonal passages. Henze’s music gave ample opportunity for the Cleveland Orchestra musicians to shine. Christoph von Dohnányi has been associated with this work since its creation; one assumes that his interpretation of it is authoritative.

After intermission Dohnányi returned for Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major of 1885–89, deemed a radical and modern work at its time. It was composed or or less simultaneously with his orchestral song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a Wayfarer”); quotations from the songs appear in the symphony. At the time of its first performance Mahler was persuaded to provide the symphony with a story and a title, The Titan, in the hope that audiences would have greater understanding of Mahler’s complex music. Mahler soon withdrew the program, but the subtitle stuck.

Christoph von Dohnányi and The Cleveland Orchestra have performed this music many times (as well as recording the symphony), so this was like revisiting an old friend. From the beginning, the musical drama in the piece was emphasized, always moving forward, from the first hushed unison octaves in the strings and off-stage trumpet fanfares until the triumphant brass fanfares at the end of the fourth movement that close the symphony. During his tenure as Music Director, Dohnányi was credited with renewing the brilliance of The Cleveland Orchestra that had been missing since the death of George Szell in 1970. Indeed, in this performance the orchestral sound was plush and full, clearly textured, but not totally pristine; there were several noticeable flubs along the way in the brass. However, that hardly mattered, considering the majesty of the entire performance. It had an autumnal feel to it; here is a conductor, who at age 83 was expressing his vast experience with this symphony.

There were many notable details. In the second movement Dohnányi managed to ratchet up the level of tension of the waltz/scherzo as it progressed. What started as a tuneful little waltz eventually had a frantic air. There was a brief respite for the short trio section, a gracious, folksong-like Ländler.

The third movement has as its main theme a minor-key version of the children’s song “Frère Jacques”, intertwined with short segments of gypsy/klezmer band music. One can imagine how unnerving this must have been to an 1889 audience expecting something similar to Brahms or early Richard Strauss. Dohnányi emphasized the neurotic qualities of the music.

A cymbal crash breaks the mood, leading right into the fourth movement. Thematic materials from earlier movements of the symphony are brought back and further developed. The brass fanfares, first heard in the far distance off-stage in the first movement, reappear in blazing glory to bring the symphony to its close, and, in this case, the audience to its feet. There was an extended ovation for conductor and orchestra, as Christoph von Dohnányi took his time to greet the principal players personally.

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