Recordings capture Cleveland Orchestra and conductors in top form

The Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell became one of the most unusual and cherished of American musical institutions. Szell instilled in his orchestra - and it was very much his orchestra - the ideal of chamber music. Through firm discipline and highly efficient use of rehearsal time, Szell was able to get his players to listen to one another and create a supple, nuanced, alert, responsive orchestral experience. Since Szell's passing in 1970, the orchestra has had only two music directors - Lorin Maazel, who left in 1981 to take over the Vienna State Opera, and Christoph von Dohn'anyi, who has been at the helm since '84. Maazel kept the ideal of the Cleveland alive for his decade's tenure; Dohn'anyi has more specific ideas of where he wants the sound to go, yet the orchestra still remains, at its core, the Cleveland.

On a recent East Coast tour, I heard two of the six concerts in New York - one with Dohn'anyi, the other with principal guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. The former is in the midst of a complete Beethoven cycle for Telarc Records; the latter has been recording Strauss (among others) for London Records. The recordings capture conductors and orchestra at peak responsiveness, albeit the difference between them is considerable.

Unfortunately, the live concerts offered few pleasures. Dohn'anyi had offered three stimulating programs. The one I caught up with juxtaposed the New York premi`ere of Manfred Trojahn's ``Variations for Orchestra'' with Bruckner's Seventh Symphony. Ashkenazy was dabbling in Sibelius - ``The Swan of Tuonela'' and the Fourth Symphony - as well as Mozart and Ravel.

Dohn'anyi has already established himself as a programmer of stimulating and startling originality. He is also a friend of the new, though he is rarely careless in his choice of what he will perform. Trojahn's ``Variations'' proved wonderfully exotic, with all sorts of timbral effects and an unexpected, irresolute ending. Although his way with the mainstream Germanic repertoire is usually bracing and provocative, the Bruckner Seventh was disappointing. Dohn'anyi remained a dispassionate observer, failing to establish any sort of viewpoint, drama, or majesty.

The same noncommittal approach pervaded Ashkenazy's directing. His Sibelius Fourth - possibly the most disturbing, pessimistic, and horrifying musical vision ever written in the tonal idiom - trudged along without mood or emotional devastation. The Mozart Clarinet Concerto (K. 622), played on a version of the basset clarinet for which it was written, had no spark, despite Franklin Cohen's often elegant playing. And Ravel's ``Rapsodie Espagnole'' passed by in a haze rather than with the sultry aura Ravel scrupulously scored into the music.

The tendency toward blandness is not so evident on Ashkenazy's Strauss recordings. In fact, the performance of ``Don Quixote'' with Lynn Harrell on cello (London, digital CD, 417 184-2) is light-years away from their poor performance with the Royal Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall last season. Nevertheless, this ``Quixote'' never really scales sufficient heights to make it competitive. The filler, ``The Dance of the Seven Veils'' from the opera ``Salome,'' is an engineering marvel, but little more.

Ashkenazy's account of ``Ein Heldenleben'' (digital CD, 417 292-2) is far more engaging - straightforward, uncomplicated, and gloriously well recorded.

Dohn'anyi's Beethoven cycle for the Telarc label has been, to date, consistent - splendid in terms of sonics, lean and bracing in interpretation. The Sixth Symphony (``Pastorale''), paired with the ``Leonore'' Overture No. 3 (Telarc, digital CD, CD-80145), moves spryly and the orchestra is with him every step of the way. And with the recent release of the Fifth and Seventh on one CD (digital, CD-80163), the cycle becomes even more interesting.

Dohn'anyi's Fifth is predictably fleet and secure, but his Seventh is downright thrilling. There is an inexorable rightness to every one of his swift tempos. The feeling of dance that becomes almost a Bacchic nightmare is at once disturbing and exhilarating.

Perhaps most important is the contribution the Cleveland makes to this performance - a great orchestra in peak form. And because it pairs these two favorite symphonies, at well over an hour of programming, it should be a strong seller.

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