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S & H Concert Review

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, Barbican 13th June 2002 (MB)


"It sounded just as if I had been listening to a CD", my guest for the evening commented after hearing the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony under their departing Music Director, Christoph von Dohnányi. It is a pretty accurate description for a performance that was technically flawless but emotionally void, one that whilst resting on the laurels of its polished sound came across as musically soulless. In part, the orchestra played as if on auto-pilot giving the performance a gritty inevitability, but the damage was mostly achieved by a conductor who concentrated more on the surface beauties of this work (and they are considerable) than on trying to get underneath the work’s epic structure. If this work was given any sense of architecture and space at all it was juxtaposed with a tawdry, nihilistic lack of expression. It was simply too well upholstered, too polished, as if time itself had never ravaged any of the contours of this great and mysterious work.

Mr Dohnányi’s way with Bruckner is similar to the Mahler he has performed with his other orchestra, the Philharmonia. Lacking musical perspective, his performances of the biggest symphonies miss the purpose and passion of the symphonies – in part illustrating the point that some conductors surely need the score in front of them during a performance (Mr Dohnányi conducted without one). Only once during the whole span of this performance did I feel any sense that something unique was happening – and that was in the development of the final movement when the clarinets were given such a transparency of sound it really did appear that they were rising through the mist of the orchestral sound. It rarely comes across that way.

Both opening movements hung fire in a surprising way, especially given that tempi were neither forced nor excessively slow. Yet, the parameters of this performance were almost contradictory – a fluid pace which proved elusive in bringing out any detail. Pierre Boulez takes a similar approach to the opening movements yet his performance is drawn with modes of expressivity simply unmatched by Mr Dohnányi. In the second movement, for example, Bruckner uses a plethora of instrumental detail to shed the image of this as a repetitive, garrulous movement; Mr Dohnányi merely made it sound monotonous. In the first, the sweeping dramatic force which should give this movement a growing sense of eruption failed to materialise.

The Adagio, although beautifully played, particularly by the ‘cellos (basses being almost inaudible) lacked that one thing it really should – a sense of meaning. Both conductor and orchestra were slightly perfunctory in interpreting what should be a volatile journey – and although the two climaxes were at least shaped well, both ultimately failed to grip. This was, in fact, provocatively over- emphasised by a reticent cymbal player. If the final movement came off best it was partly because Bruckner never intended this movement to be a traditional, symphonic resolution to the work (only the coda brings all its elements neatly together): in so much of the movement it is a continuation of what has preceded it, powerful brass chorales intertwined with contrapuntal string harmonies. For both conductor and orchestra there was little need to alter the methodology so ruthlessly exposed in the earlier movements, and in many ways they simply kept things as they were.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that The Cleveland Orchestra is a formidable instrument, and this was a magnificently played performance of Bruckner’s grandest symphony. Frequently, the wide dynamic of this orchestra’s corporate sound seemed a little overwhelming, but with such spectacular brass playing one can easily forgive the inherent loudness, always assured, often blistering. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the interpretation itself was such a disappointment. Having started on the journey of listening to Bruckner’s Eighth one does rather hope to reach one’s destination; in this case, one felt as if one had been stranded midpoint.

Marc Bridle


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