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Dohnányi Is Stern and Powerful with the BSO


(Stu Rosner photo)
Christoph von Dohnányi leads Renaud Capuçon and BSO (Stu Rosner photo)

Christoph von Dohnányi led a stern, powerful reading of three Romantic favorites in the Boston Symphony Orchestra subscription concert on Thursday, bringing Brahms and Sibelius firmly back to their roots in Beethoven, and bringing Beethoven to life.

The program started with Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn. One of the difficulties in performing this piece is to determine whether it consists of disconnected orchestral exercises or whether there is an overall coherence and design. By avoiding the lure of Romantic sentimentality and by emphasizing Brahms’s deep devotion to Beethoven’s musical language, Dohnányi gave the Variations discipline, force and meaning. He connected the eight variations by means of an underlying musical impulse that retained its identity throughout the profusion of its outward manifestations. Clear and distinct in Variation I, Brahms’ voice allowed itself beautiful colors in Variation II, turned sharp and decisive in Variation III, then introspective in Variation IV, edgy and anxious in Variation V. Dohnányi nicely exploited the contrast between  Variations VI and VII to bring Beethoven vividly to mind: in Variation VI, as the strings accompanied the winds, a sense of contending with violent forces was conveyed, while Variation VII (grazioso) blossomed into beautiful tender pastoral colors. The Beethoven-like foreboding of Variation VIII culminated in a powerfully assertive passacaglia finale. The tension between the repeated bass and the yearning of the accompanying variations found dramatic resolution in the reemergence of the original theme, rich and sonorous.

A similar firm discipline allowed the Sibelius Violin Concerto to have exceptional expressive force. A magnificent work written in a frenzy, it is achingly beautiful, one of the great Romantic concertos, filled with emotional depth, but in the wrong hands can sound maudlin and syrupy. Notoriously difficult and structurally innovative – for instance, using an extended cadenza in the first movement as a development section—the piece embodies Sibelius’ heroic ambition to combine the scope of a Beethoven symphony with the intimacy of the late quartets to create an explosive new type of musical work.

Led by Dohnányi, soloist Renaud Capuçon played in a lean style without self-indulgence, which made it all the more expressive. Capuçon gave the first movement a passionate, emotional reading, with sharp attack and clean, crisp phrasing. The second movement, all the more lyrical for being sober, conveyed a grief reminiscent of Job. Dangerous Liszt-like temptations were firmly avoided as Dohnányi held to a Beethoven idiom of strength. Capuçon commendably kept our attention focused on the music, not himself. Consequently, the third movement came as an extraordinary emotional release, an uncompromising embrace of destiny, full of excitement and unpredictable surprises, ending with passionate keening from the violin. Responding to enthusiastic applause and multiple curtain calls, Capuçon graced us with an encore. His distinctive self-restraint brought Gluck back from the Underworld, giving the “Melodie” from his Orfeo ed Euridice unexpected emotional depth. Vide E.T.A. Hoffman’s famous comment on first hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Music “is the most romantic of all arts…. Just as Orpheus’s lyre opened the gates of the underworld, music unlocks for mankind an unknown realm.”

Fittingly, the concert culminated by going back to the source with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, one of the works that inhibited Brahms from composing symphonies. As in the Sibelius, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony emerged as a response to the uncharted struggle that constitutes our existence. Dohnányi gave it a powerful reading, with firm clear lines and constant forward motion throughout. The first movement was crisp, forceful and compelling, filled with violent contrasts, sudden surges and outbursts, a feeling of being challenged by overwhelming forces. The second movement, exploratory and youthful, conveyed an illusory sense of having achieved freedom. The illusion was shattered in the third movement, pulsating with rhythm and force, leading to a very clearly-delineated contrapuntal Trio and then a harnessing, against all odds, of those irresistible pulsations in the pizzicato return. The triumphant outburst of the Finale became an exultant declaration of human resolve, turning Fate into Destiny, fear into mastery, self-doubt into joy. As Hoffman concluded at the time, “Beethoven’s music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic.” Dohnányi reminded us that the capacity to harness violence in order to sublimate our impulses into Art, rather than to vent our violence against others, is the essence of human heroism.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. after hearing die Schicksals Symphonie, I had a lot to worry about die Die Romantische Symphonie next week.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 8, 2013 at 11:52 am

  2. Do you mean that you are worried about how Dohnanyi will conduct Bruckner next Thursday?

    Comment by Ashley — February 8, 2013 at 1:33 pm

  3. Whatever BSO played this season was just a rehearsal for them to play Bruckner next week. I cross my paws and hope for the best.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — February 8, 2013 at 3:04 pm

  4. What I especially liked about Dohnányi’s Beethoven was the clarity of the sound, which in turn supported his bringing out the contrasts in texture and volume. It was an informative performance.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 8, 2013 at 3:05 pm

  5. Ashley, it is an alternative way to say I was not impressed in a good way.

    The conductor himself should not be too happy either. How many times in the 2nd movement did he have to point at the direction towards cello and flute (I could not see for sure because of seating) to signal p. But I could hear that the woodwinds were too loud when the dynamics required playing down. The melody played by the flute was ugly, UnBeethoven. BTW, why did cell sit next to the 1st violin? Could someone explain the benefit? I personally think it makes the sound worse.

    I have problem with other movements, other two pieces as well.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm

  6. Just listened live to the Fifth, and it certainly did have its informative moments of clarity, texture, and more, quite as Whipple has it. I do wish that every conductor including Dohnányi could commit forevermore to doing the opening exactly and emphatically as explicitly written: [pause] and-2-and-ONE!. In other words, make the opening sound identical to the famous motto elsewhere throughout, with that driving headlong quality of the rhythm done right. Not 1-2-3-FOUR. Catch that very starting rest as a caught breath (or whatever). Even Matthew Guerrieri doesn’t quite get into this and make enough of it in his fine new book on those four notes.

    Comment by David Moran — February 12, 2013 at 10:25 pm

  7. I remember hearing the unsettling atmosphere was severely breached by the horns towards the end of the development of 1st movement. Seriously doubt if anyone else heard it the same way as I did…

    is Matthew Guerrieri a famous person? I saw him once on morning TV promoting his book. I did not feel he was the kind of person who sincerely loves the music God.

    Comment by Thorsten — February 13, 2013 at 10:16 am

  8. Thorsten – there is an interview with Dohnányi online at WGBH in which he explains at length (toward the end of the interview) why he uses the arrangement of the orchestra that was in use at the time that these pieces were composed. He considers the seating arrangement to be more important than the use of period instruments.

    David and Joe – try to get your hands on a copy of the 1960 movie “Once More With Feeling”, with Yul Brynner playing an egomaniacal conductor rehearsing his orchestra and unable to get them past the first four notes of the 5th.

    Comment by Leon Golub — February 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm

  9. Totally concur in the thinking about seating.

    Guerrieri is a local music critic (Globe stringer) who, although he overwrites some (as do many of us), is really very good and enthusiastic about all sorts of musics. And some feature just amazingly adroit and imaginative description; look up his recent review of Schuller premiere (see if this is available: Of the recent Beethoven violin sonatas at the Gardner he concluded:
    “Throughout the three Op. 12 sonatas, playful back-and-forth turned obsessive and even absurd: a riot of trochees thumping through the finale of the D major No. 1, a game of imitated-motive brinkmanship in the A major No. 2. In the third of the group, the E major, the contrasts of articulation and volume became bigger, annexing the listener’s attention by staking out extreme boundaries.
    “But fast-forward three years in Beethoven’s life and he had focused his ambition. The A minor Sonata, Op. 23, eschews the extravagant ornamentation of the Op. 12 sonatas for locked-in power. Jumppanen and Cerovsek again displayed hurtling preciseness, but here the virtuosity was inseparable from the structure, integral to the contrapuntal wiring. Beethoven might never have outgrown having something to prove, but the proofs became more fearsomely efficient.”

    Comment by David Moran — February 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm

  10. Thanks a lot for the info.

    I might have further comments about the seating under Bruckner concert review.

    After viewing Guerrieri’s interview on WGBH, I don’t think there is adjustment needed to my initial impression. I am old enough to have seen many seamingly educated and sophisticated people who presumptuously claim that they have certain insights…

    Comment by Thorsten — February 15, 2013 at 2:44 pm

  11. Everyone here is entitled to his or her opinion, Lord knows, but boy, impugning the sincerity of someone’s love of music seems to me a bit much, especially a writer who’s done the really heavy and value-adding musical lifting that Guerrieri has.

    Comment by David Moran — February 15, 2013 at 4:24 pm

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