As Maazel leaves, Cleveland Orchestra still best in US

Last Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, Lorin Maazel bade farewell to the Cleveland Orchestra the ensemble he led as music director for the past decade.

The work chosen for this occasion was Verdi's towering ''Messa da Requiem" the last in a quartet of bow-out performances in New York that week. The programs included Beethoven's Third and Fifth Symphonies (in the acoustically unflattering Avery Fisher Hall), Dvorak's Seventh and Ninth, Berlioz's ''Symphonie Fantastique,'' Debussy's ''Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune,'' and Saint-Saens' venerable Second Piano Cofcerto, with the conductor's wife, Israela Margalit, as soloist (all but the two Beethoven works in the legendary and agreeable acoustics of Carnegie Hall).

Only one who has heard the orchestra regularly in Severance Hall, Cleveland, can truly talk about the impact Maazel has had on the ensemble and Cleveland's overall musical profile. He has championed new works, American and European. He even defied economic common sense by offering the US premiere performances of Luciano Berio's briltzx bUt complex ''Cmro'' in Severance Hall as wdll as on tour - a true act of daring, given how badly new music draws at the box office. (Each season brought some huge piece from Cleveland to New York ranging from Mahler and Bruckner to Berio to Beethoven.)

Maazel is off to Vienna to head the Vienna State Opera, a post held by the likes of Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, and Herbert von Karajan. His affinity for opera has never been demonstrated on his numerous recordings - most of which are quite eccentric, willful, oddly untheatrical.

This is odd, since opera relies on a conductor as accompanist -and Maazel is a superb accompanist: He made the Saint-Saens concerto, in which he supported his wife as soloist, both interesting and fresh (though his wife was not up to the technical rigors of this virtuoso showcase).

Maazel took over the Cleveland under something of a cloud: It had been leaked to the press at the time that he was the orchestra players' last choice. But he won their confidence, and he proved an inexhaustible supporter of his orchestra - a master interviewee who dealt with his interviewers smoothly and wisely, promoting in an aggressive, proud, yet unsensational way the organization of which he was musical head.

At the start, no ''big five'' orchestra director was so willing to talk to the press or to be a public as well as a musical figure. And to date only Zubin Mehta in New York has been as accessible and voluble. Seiji Ozawa (Boston) and Riccardo Muti (Philadelphia) refuse to open up in interviews. Maazel is also one of the few Americans (born in Paris of American parents, and trained in this country) to lead one of the top five orchestras (the fifth being the Chicago).

What he took over in 1972 was one of the special jewels among international orchestras, the ensemble George Szell had honed into what many considered the finest orchestra in the world. During the interim between Dr. Szell's passing and the beginning of Maazel's tenure, Pierre Boulez had maintained a healthy discipline. Happily, Mr. Maazel never let Dr. Szell's standard slip. He leaves to his successor, Christoph von Dohnanyi, the best orchestra, overall, in the United States, rivaled only by the Berlin Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw for virtuosity. Above all, there is a distinctiveness of timbre in this faultless ensemble wedded to a startling purity of tone.

The Cleveland has always been a lean, taut orchestra. Not for Szell or Maazel the plushness of Ormandy's Philadelphia or the opulent glossiness of Ozawa's Boston Symphony, or even the near-Prussian military puissance of the Chicago forces. Rather, each section complements the other. The same sheen to be heard in the winds is found in the strings, and in the transparency of the brass. It is a sound superbly captured on Szell's transcendent account of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony - M2 30070 (currently, and inexcusably, out of the Schwann catalog). I encountered it when Maazel offered the same work in Boston (at Symphony Hall) several seasons back. It could be heard in the Dvorak Seventh heard at Carnegie last Friday - a sumptuous though not plush sound which all sections telegraphed with urgency and an awareness of one another's presence, as well as each player's place within the whole.

But Maazel's taste as a musician-interpreter has always been unusual. There has never been any great tenderness or warmth to his work, rather the sense of a presiding intellect coolly, clinically dissecting each work, fussing and fidgeting over details as they pass by, trying to inflict his own will into the composer's framework (the I'm-in-control-here school).

This ''inflictive'' approach has led to acompendium of bizarre peformances throughout his career (not just the Cleveland years). In the account of the ''Eroica,'' the pacing was consistently brisk (of the I've-got-a-plane-to-catch school), with nary a nod to the tensions or the moods of the score. His imposition of phrasings, pauses, and changes of dynamics hung on the musical line.

The Berlioz ''March to the Scaffold'' was a veritable sprint. In Dvorak's ''New World,'' his tempo in the slow movement denied English horn soloist Felix Kraus any chance of sensitive evocation or simply good musicianship. In fact, that performance was devoid of mood as Maazel attempted to prove that it is a piece of absolute, nonpicturesque, nonprogrammatic music. Under Maazel's baton, Debussy's ''Prelude'' - a perfect study in opulent sonorities - became an exercise in arid, choppily phrased note-processing.

But there have been numerous times when these less-than-admirable qualities have been submerged, held in check, and a cool but beguiling performance shone through - in addition to the Bruckner Eighth, a rafter-raising account of Mahler's Second Symphony (''Resurrection''), just to mention two. In this current run, Dvorak's Seventh Symphony was granted a reading suffused with the required dark mood and tension, and was - with the exception of a facile coda to the finale - a model performance of the work. Beethoven's Fifth passed by with a minimum of oddities and a maximum of brio.

Maazel's Verdi ''Requiem'' may not have touched the heart, but it had a nobility, a grandeur, and an occasional smattering of theatricality not usually part of Maazel's makeup, which coalesced into a fine sense of event. Throughout, the orchestra played stunningly well - rallying magnificently for this farewell to its chief of 10 years. From the barely audible opening phrase - just a rustle in the cellos - through to the fullest climaxes, moments passed by that will remain etched forever in this listener's inner ear, such as the transcendent transparency of the strings in the closing pages of the Offertorio.'' Throughout , balances remained immaculate, transparency unprecedented. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus performed handsomely, despite a tendency to very open American vowels.

Of the vocal quartet, John Paul Bogart was overparted, his bass being essentially too lyric an instrument for this imposing music; the solid tenor of Peter Dvorsky proved a bit sobby and monochromatic. Dunja Vejzovic's lyric mezzo proved intermittently stunning, and in Hildegard Behrens we finally had a soprano who can ride the full orchestral climaxes, yet taper the voice down to effectively quiet proportions (a few crucial flatted top notes aside), and be dramatic and imaginative as well.

Maazel leaves behind a quantity of records. On the London Label, I would cite the Prokofiev Fifth (CS - 7099); the Franck Symphony in D minor (with the added bonus of the same composer's ''Symphonic Variations,'' Pascal Roge soloist (CS - 7044); a magnificent account of the Debussy ''Nocturnes'' and ''Iberia'' and ''Jeux'' (CS - 7128); Ravel's ''Daphnis et Chloe'' superbly recorded (CS - 6898 ); the complete Gershwin ''Porgy and Bess'' - a richly operatic reading of the score (OSA - 13116).

His Brahms set proved a total bungle interpretively. The Beethoven cycle on Columbia Records is only average, a superb orchestra notwithstanding. On the Telarc label is a Stravinsky ''Rite of Spring'' that is eccentric as can be, yet so superbly recorded, so utterly representative of the best of this fabulous ensemble, that it should be required listening to all who love great orchestral playing (Telarc Digital - 1054).

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