There are rarely times that, even after just a few phrases, one can tell that a concert is going to be something special. Such was the case on Thursday evening when Christoph von Dohnányi, the Cleveland Orchestra’s much-revered Music Director Laureate, conducted the first of three concerts this weekend containing just two works – Robert Schumann’s second and fourth symphonies. The 84 year old German maestro’s appearances in Cleveland have been rare since he left his Music Director post as in 2002 after a 20-year tenure. Even though there have been retirements, departures and new players in the orchestra, the group responded brilliantly to his conducting. It was as if the orchestra was a well-tuned Porsche under Dohnányi’s direction; with merest of hand gesture, the orchestra responded. He showed the orchestra the phrasing and rhythmic flexibility through his conducting. There were no grand musical “concepts”; everything was elegant, precise and under control – just right.

Christoph von Dohnányi © Fotostudio Heinrich
Christoph von Dohnányi
© Fotostudio Heinrich

Schumann composed what is now known as his Symphony no. 4 in D minor in 1841, when Schumann was just 23. The first performance was unsuccessful, which prompted Schumann to set it aside. In 1851 he revisited the work, and revised it considerably. In the intervening ten years, Schumann had composed his second and third symphonies, so the revised earlier work was labelled the as his fourth. It retains the composer’s youthful vigor and melodic invention. Johannes Brahms was known to prefer the original 1841 version and published it over Clara Schumann’s objections. Despite Brahms’s preference, it is the 1851 version that is most commonly performed. Although the symphony is in four movements, the thematic material is all presented in the first movement, and is further developed in the later movements, which are played without significant pause.

With our modern ears, it is now hard to understand why such great musicians as Gustav Mahler and George Szell felt it was necessary to “correct” Robert Schumann’s symphonies by thinning out Schumann’s orchestral textures and making other editorial changes. As with other composers — Borodin and Mussorgsky come immediately to mind — conductors are more willing these days to trust the composers’ original intentions. This performance was a model of clarity. Tempi were well-judged and balances in place. Transitions in tempo were subtle and and the quicker tempi took on a kind of urgency, but never felt rushed. Details such as the first violin solo in the second movement were integrated into the orchestral texture.

 Schumann's revisions ten years later do not mask the fact that his Symphony no. 4 is a youthful work. By contrast, his Symphony no. 2 in C major, composed in 1845-46 is much more mature in its structure and, importantly, its melodic outpourings. The Adagio movement, somewhat unusually placed as the third movement, is a glorious song without words. The composer paid homage to his heros Bach and Beethoven by using the the musical theme B-A-C-H in the trio section of the second (scherzo) movement), and a fragments from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and the “Ode to Joy” are found in the finale. The radiant beauty of the Fourth, and its immediate success at its first performance conducted by Felix Mendelssohn with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra are all the more remarkable considering that Schumann composed the work while suffering from debilitating physical ailments and chronic depression.

As with the Dohnányi/Cleveland Orchestra collaboration on the Fourth Symphony, this performance of the Second had similar virtues: clarity, flexibility, elegance. The wind solos in the Adagio were especially affecting. The scherzo was taken at a very brisk pace and was Mendelssohnian in its airiness. Schumann's doublings and constant trading of thematic materials could have been, in a performance by a lesser orchestra, a gigantic mess. But here it seemed the most natural thing.

At the close of the concert, the audience gave conductor and orchestra a triumphant ovation, calling the conductor back for numerous curtain calls. The bows would have continued even longer, had not the maestro beckoned the concertmaster and orchestra members to follow him off the stage. This weekend's concerts will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of this season for audience members lucky enough to hear it.