Opening Night at Tanglewood, Friday, July 6, 2012: Boston Symphony Orchestra Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor – Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and the Leonore Overture No. 3

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Christoph von Dohnanyi leading the BSO on Tanglewood Opening Night. Photo Hilary Scott.
Christoph von Dohnanyi leading the BSO on Tanglewood Opening Night. Photo Hilary Scott.

Friday, July 6, 2012, 8:30 pm Shed
Opening Night at Tanglewood

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor

All-Beethoven Program
Leonore Overture No. 3
Symphony No. 6, Pastoral
Symphony No. 5
(Program of August 5, 1937)

Quite a lot has already transpired at Tanglewood, from James Taylor and Diana Krall to Mark Morris and the Emerson Quartet, but with Saturday evening’s reprise of the inaugural concert, which took place under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky on August 5, 1937, the 75th anniversary season of the Tanglewood (Berkshire until 1986) Music Festival has begun. The shed was quite well populated, even in the farther reaches of the Shed, and the lawn also looked fairly full. Critics and public alike seemed excited by the prospect of another Tanglewood summer, especially in this anniversary year. And of course there were the fireworks to look forward to!

No one could complain about the choice of Christoph von Dohnányi to lead the opening concert. He is one of the most distinguished conductors to have worked in the U.S., and Bostonians were more than happy when he returned to the Boston Symphony after many years’ absence, due to his exasperation with the orchestra’s playing during the Ozawa years. He has generously filled the breaches left by James Levine’s cancellations.

I knew maestro von Dohnányi’s work from my time in Cleveland in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, when I subscribed the the Orchestra for a year or two. At one point I learned a humbling lesson from him. One of his programs included Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the very work which closed the first half of Saturday’s program. His performance with Cleveland was, as I remember, not terribly dissimilar from the Tanglewood reading: fast tempi, smooth surfaces, fine detail. At the time, it seemed precious and fussy, as if he were condescending to the music. Back then I listened to recordings a great deal, and Klemperer, Walter, and above all Furtwängler were my ideals in the work — and they still are. Dohnányi’s apparent slickness and condescension even angered me, and I stomped out of Severance Hall in a foul temper. I had a similar reaction to Dohnányi’s treatment of some Mozart symphonies, and I came to the conclusion that I should stay away, whenever he conducted anything written before 1860. In later repertoire, there were many treasurable experiences: Das Rheingold, Bruckner, Mahler, Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern, to name a few. However, a few months after that exasperating encounter with Dohnányi’s “Pastoral,” I was cruising towards the Van Aken Shopping Center in Shaker Heights and turned the radio on somewhere in the middle of the first movement of an unquestionably appealing performance of the symphony, rich in texture, strongly grounded, and dancing with energy. Fascinated, I diverted my course into Beachwood, making a few turns among the postwar ranch houses, as it began to become clear to me that this was in fact Dohnányi and Cleveland! I listened through to the end, finally parked in the shopping center lot, and the announcer did in fact confirm that it was their recording, recently released on Telarc. It can’t have been that much different from the concert performance, so it was an object lesson in how our expectations and passing moods can influence how we hear a performance. I’ve been careful about that ever since.

The concert began with a characteristic Dohnányi performance of the Leonore Overture No. 3, in which he sought out its dissonant chords and stressed them, without pulling them entirely out of the orchestral texture as a whole. In this he showed a nice ear for the coloristic qualities of dissonant harmonies in Beethoven’s orchestration. The playing was unexceptionable, but Dohnányi’s way of putting the piece together stressed its logic as a purely absolute work, rather downplaying Beethoven’s emotive, idealized storytelling. The powerful dramatic qualities of the overture did not make themselves felt. I have to mention that Ken-David Masur led a significantly more complete and satisfying reading of the overture with the TMC Orchestra last summer.

No hackles arose during the Sixth. It was fast, urbane, and modern, with gleaming surfaces, refined wind playing, and the same cultivation of surprising inner harmonies. Dohnányi, who has conducted Rheingold, Walküre, and Wozzeck so evocatively, showed no inclination to treat Beethoven’s Sixth as program music, and no interest in the Romantic cult of nature which inspired Furtwängler. For him the world of the “Pastoral” is confined to the concert hall, and nature can only be glimpsed through windows which are almost never there. The most limited of the movements were the third and fourth, as one might expect. Dohnányi has an especially interesting way of treating the flute cadenza, a.k.a. the bird call, at the end of the second movement, which gives it a nervousness and angularity redolent of the Second Vienna School. (I remember it from the Cleveland performances.) This inspired some especially brilliant playing from Elizabeth Rowe. No rage, no complaints this time.

The Fifth, which concluded the concert, lacked the fine tooling of the Sixth, as if it had been decided that it could manage on its own. It also whisked by like lightning. Fortunately, Dohnányi opted for some of the repeats—a necessity at such a tempo and desirable at slower paces. If the Sixth, with its refined phrasing and attention to inner voices, had not prepared me to listen for such fine detail, the rough patches and the relative disinterest in inner voices would not have seemed such serious shortcomings. The fast tempo precluded much of this detail in any case. This kind of performance — not one I particularly relish — needs a higher degree of precision to succeed. Dohnányi did not linger in the slow movement. The great transition between the Scherzo and the Finale suffered especially, first in tension, then in grandeur, letting the music rush to its conclusion without much contained energy to propel it.

This was a disappointing conclusion to a concert which promised better in its first half, but even the Sixth was not exceptional. This commemoration of the historic first Boston Symphony concert at Tanglewood was far from memorable in itself. On to the fireworks, which were splendid!

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