NEW YORK — IN my view, the Cleveland Orchestra has earned the title of America's premier symphony ensemble - in terms of sheer virtuosity, versatility, and overall musical commitment. The orchestra has rarely slipped below the high standards set during the late, great George Szell's tenure (1946-70). In the decade when Lorin Maazel was at the helm (1972-82), he managed to maintain the spirit and musical philosophy Szell had so painstakingly instilled. And now the current music director, Christoph von Dohn'anyi, respects that spirit as well, even though he has his own decided views on how the orchestra should sound.
Under his direction, the Cleveland is a highly versatile orchestra; Mr. Dohn'anyi elicits the sound that suits each particular composer, rather than one remarkable sound for all. As called for, those sounds range from gritty, wrenching, astringent tones to ones of great, opulent beauty.
This versatility can be heard on virtually all Dohn'anyi's recordings, beginning with the Dvorak Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies, which were his first recordings with the Cleveland, and continuing right up through his newest:
The four Schumann symphonies (Nos. 1 and 2, London, digital, 421 4392, 71 min., and Nos. 3 and 4, London, digital, 421 643-2, 59 min.).
Beethoven's First, Second, Fourth, and Eighth Symphonies, which complete Dohn'anyi's Beethoven symphony cycle (Nos. 1 and 2, Telarc, digital, CD-80187, 59 min., and Nos. 4 and 8, Telarc, digital, CD-80198, 59 min.).
And the Third Symphony (``Scottish'') and ``The First Walpurgis Night,'' both by Mendelssohn (Telarc, digital, CD-80184, 67 min.).
This versatility was also dramatically demonstrated in the two concerts I heard during the orchestra's mini-residency here in New York a few weeks ago. Curiously, the most demonstrative audience showed up for the evening that included Bart'ok's suite from ``The Miraculous Mandarin'' and Var`ese's ``Am'eriques'' - works not usually thought of as crowd pleasers.
For this writer's taste, the opening Bart'ok was not really lurid or savage enough until nearly halfway through, yet it was spectacularly well played, and the audience roared its approval. The Var`ese is the sort of work one can admire more than cherish: What must have been startling in 1926 sounds less so in 1989, principally because Var`ese's musical debt to Stravinsky's ``La Sacre du Printemps,'' among other works, is so obvious. Nevertheless, Dohn'anyi gave us a very good sense of the piece's strengths and weaknesses.
A second program opened with a gorgeous account of the prelude to Delius's ``Irmelin'' and continued with Tippett's Triple Concerto, which is a curious mix of longwindedness and brooding beauty. Principal violinist Daniel Majeske, violist Robert Vernon, and cellist Stephen Geber performed masterfully, and the maestro led the work with obvious affection. Dohn'anyi's ``Eroica,'' on the same program, was bracing, vigorous, and engrossing. It proved emphatically that one does not have to resort exclusively to period instruments or early-music interpretations to bring the power and genius of this score meaningfully to life.
And the same can be said of Dohn'anyi's entire Beethoven cycle on Telarc. The Fourth Symphony, for instance, features some remarkably bracing tempos, superb playing, and a rich, mellow sound that never loses its sheen. The Eighth (originally issued in 1984 on a CD with Schubert's Eighth) is another fine reading.
As for Beethoven's First and Second Symphonies, they are everything one would expect, on the basis of the other performances. This cycle finally offers a bracing alternative to the mainstream central European readings, without eschewing the traditions from which those readings come. They are all consistently satisfying recordings made from exciting, alert, nuanced performances with Telarc's excellent sonic standards.
On the Mendelssohn disc, the ``Scottish'' Symphony is handsomely presented, but ``Walpurgis Night'' is marred by a weak lineup of soloists and a thin-voiced chorus. Happily, the Schumann CDs are remarkable contributions to the recording catalog. Dohn'anyi refuses to make these pieces pretty, or to cover up Schumann's deficiencies as an orchestrator. Rather, by getting the Cleveland to provide lean, abrasive tones, the composer's radical use of instruments is heard without apology.