Cleveland Orchestra Makes Triumphant Visit

The Cleveland Orchestra Symphony Hall Jan. 29, 1997 presented by the BankBoston Celebrity Series

The Cleveland Orchestra spoiled its audience last Wednesday: it filled Symphony Hall with a huge and absolutely tight sound. The BankBoston Celebrity Series concert took place in front of a packed and wide-eyed crowd, visibly impressed by what Christoph von Dohnanyi and his orchestra could do.

Baritone Olaf Baer joined the orchestra to sing seven Schubert songs. This is the 200th anniversary of Schubert's death, and everyone is programming his music. Cleveland tried to pick seven crowd-pleasers, but the lied, an intimate genre for solo voice and piano, does not always survive orchestration. The two songs that Brahms transcribed, "Memnon" and "An Schwager Kronos," not surprisingly, were very successful. But Kurt Gillman's "Du Bist Die Ruh" and Felix Mottl's "Standchen" invited exuberance and high volume where restraint and calm would have better served the lilting melodies.

Baer gave "Memnon" a competent if unremarkable reading, but was immediately captivating and wonderful in "Der Wanderer." Though hindered by an unfortunate entry of the brass and Robert Fanta's heavy-handed orchestration, he communicated the song's vast unrest perfectly, and ended in just the right whisper.

Throughout "Ganymed," Dohnanyi kept a close eye on Baer, and so achieved the evening's fullest blend of vocal and orchestral sonority. The ascending melodic and harmonic figures of the music succeeded in evoking Goethe's poem about the beautiful boy snatched up into heaven. Baer and the strings went high and stayed there for an excitingly long time.

In the original "Du Bist Die Ruh," the piano keeps repeating a gently undulating phrase that is the ideal accompaniment for the song's simple melody. It is not a phrase for a harp to pluck--this "Ruh" was more irritating than peaceful. Baer seemed uncomfortable with the music being made around him, yet the strength of his voice did not waver. Like most people, he probably regretted Gillman's decision to end the song with a drum roll.


Conductor and soloist were once again equal partners in Webern's version of "Ihr Bild." The orchestra played movingly and, for the great climax, Baer puffed out his cheeks, stuck out his neck and sounded totally despondent as he attacked the last two lines: translated from the German, "And ah, I cannot believe/That I have lost you!"

"Standchen" should have been the prettiest of the set, but Dohnanyi's tempo was too fast. It made the song's tenderness debonair. But the last song, "An Schwager Kronos," was perfect. Baer kept close to the text, and the orchestra's playing was wonderfully subdued, until the triumphant final fanfare, which sounded better in the horns than it ever could on a piano. The music was so, compelling that it more than made up for the few previous disappointments. Baer got the loud and abundant applause he deserved.

When Dohnanyi came onstage after intermission, it was clear that he would conduct Mahler's first symphony without the score. That anyone could know such an immense work by heart was hard to imagine until his masterful interpretation began. A reduced version of the orchestra, mostly strings, had performed the Schubert, but now that all the musicians filled the stage Doh- nanyi was no less in control.

The beginning of the first movement, which always calls to mind both the Rhine music in Wagner and the opening of the Brahms 2nd, was here also reminiscent of the tense introduction to the finale of the "Symphony Fantastique." The offstage trumpets and cuckoo-like clarinet were truly awesome. The strings sounded as tight and together as they do on recordings from the legendary Szell era, but much more joyous when they got to the main theme. It comes from Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfaring Lad" (the lied seemed to be the organizing principle of the whole concert) and is simply charming. Much of the pleasure of this movement is in the anticipation of the theme's return. The tempo was faster than usual, but utterly effective. All the players were beautifully coordinated; even the tuba performed its dramatic role with great grace.

Dohnanyi delivered on the second movement's promise of a tempo "with force, but not too fast." He made it by turns sweetly waltz-like and aggressively scherzando. Again, it was wonderful to watch the principals communicate so flawlessly with each other.

The third movement is a weird fusion of tragedy and parody. "Frere Jacques" turns up in a chilling minor key, but then the mood is undone by silly outbursts from a clarinet and general schmaltziness. When another "Wayfarer" melody appears, there is a long, painfully beautiful phrase for the oboe that draws the audience close, but then the grotesquerie returns. This plus the final recapitulation of "Frere Jacques" creates the intended unsettling experience.

The finale is by far the longest and most formally complex movement of the four, and the one in which a mediocre performance will lose the audience most quickly. It was again the unity of the strings that put this one over the top. The brass and winds, too, played energetically without over-looking nuances. In one particularly affecting moment, Dohnanyi appeared to close his eyes and put his hand over his heart. The orchestra performed the penultimate passage so brightly that the coda seemed superfluous.

There were shouts of "bravo" even before the music ended. Most of the audience leapt to their feet immediately, but everyone was standing by the second curtain call. There were four total, during which the applause never slackened, and deservedly: the Cleveland Orchestra was phenomenal