Two orchestras with their own kinds of excellence
New York — The Chicago Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra came to town during the past two weeks and staked their respective claims as two of the world's outstanding ensembles. New Yorkers have come to expect the finest efforts by any visiting orchestra for two reasons: New York is considered so important a date that orchestras usually come especially well prepared; and Carnegie Hall flatters any good ensemble.
All this said, the five concerts I heard (two from the Cleveland, three from the Chicago) - offered some remarkable examples of just what makes a great orchestra and just how different all great ensembles are from one another.
Sir Georg Solti, nearing his 75th birthday and in his 18th season as music director of the Chicago, was at the helm for all three concerts. For repertoire, he decided to offer a reprise of his favorite pieces. Thus, the three programs were devoted to Mahler's Ninth, Strauss's ``Ein Heldenleben,'' Stravinsky's ``Le Sacre du printemps,'' Haydn's 103rd Symphony (``Drumroll''), and Bruckner's Seventh, all but that last-mentioned recorded successfully for London Records.
Christoph von Dohn'anyi, now in his third season as music director of the Cleveland, brought the Sixth Symphony of Bruckner, as well as Fourth Symphonies by Ives and Brahms for his ambitious programs.
The two orchestras are as different as they could be. Under Solti's guidance, the Chicago has come to be a fantastic sonority machine, with all sections unerringly devoted to producing the entire spectrum of dynamics with thrilling core and substance, from the quietest of quiets, to the fullest of thunderous climaxes.
The Cleveland Orchestra, as cultivated by the late George Szell and then sustained first by Lorin Maazel and now Dohn'anyi, is more like a vast chamber ensemble, wherein the contributions of each player seem to count and to fuse into an unusually pliant, alert, and nuanced orchestra. It is not that the Cleveland is not capable of full-fledged loud playing, but that it prefers to find textures to express even within those loud extremes.
Solti's orchestra is very much the expression of his style of musicmaking, which tends towards the excitable, the propulsive, explosive, and almost frantically energetic. The Cleveland seems to insist that its music directors mold their approaches to its special viewpoint and in that co-partnership, make something unique. This happened to Maazel for a decade and seems to be happening to Dohn'anyi. It is still too early to tell if he has had any profound impact musically, but so far, many of his New York concerts have been rewarding on so many levels.
Solti's Mahler Nine was thrilling in the climaxes, astonishing in the quiet moments. The brass seemed never to tire; the winds appeared capable of massively penetrating sounds, as well as hushed, fruity tones. The strings could be now steely, now melting. Whether one felt this particular performance was a successful encompassing of the devastating emotional spectrum depends on whether you find Solti's intense, dynamics-oriented way with this score effective or not.
I have always found his approach more satisfactory in Strauss or Stravinsky than in Mahler. And the ``Sacre'' was crammed with expressivity, putting forth a range of moods and telegraphing the nervous, barbaric anxiety of the work. The Strauss had an irresistible sweep and drive, and Solti exploited every resource in his splendid ensemble to drive his points home. Unfortunately, by the third evening, his players sounded tired, and the Bruckner Seventh lacked the contemplative, even mysterious majesty Solti has been known to bring to this composer's music.
But Bruckner brought remarkable things from the Cleveland players. Under Dohn'anyi's vigilant, reactive baton, the performance of the Sixth Symphony proved uncommonly tempestuous, poetic, and visionary. One sensed, while listening to the Cleveland, that this was a surpassingly unselfconscious orchestra. No section tries to outshine another. The strings have a sheen that is beautiful to behold. (As is customary in performance, Dohn'anyi had an assisant beat the contrasting meters.)
Dohn'anyi seems very much at home with this sort of playing philosophy, and yet he is giving the orchestra more of a Central European sound, which was just right for the Bruckner and the profoundly moving Brahms Fourth that concluded his second program. That performance was a model of sustained line and texture, of imbuing a musical gesture with just the right amount of weight and accent.
The Ives would have appeared to be a mighty challenge to a German-trained musician, particularly since the Fourth is the most complex and densely written of the Ives symphonic works. Yet Dohn'anyi took to it naturally, reveling in the quantities of American folk tunes and hymns incorporated into the score and veritably exulting in the densities and polyrhythmic contrasts of the writing.
The performance proved a bracing reminder of Ives's quirky originality and just how effective his works are when performed with candor and affection. It also demonstrated anew how alert and versatile a conductor now presides over the Cleveland Orchestra. Clearly, this partnership is becoming one of the richest on the American scene today.