MUSIC / Called to order: Cleveland Orchestra - Royal Albert Hall

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The Independent Culture
The Cleveland Orchestra visited the Proms last week. They were elegant, cultured, exceptionally well drilled - and oddly anonymous. Here were two judiciously contrasted, varied, well- planned programmes: and yet, for all their passing insights and pleasures, one came away from both with an over-riding impression of uniformity.

Why? Music director Christoph von Dohnanyi is an honourable man, an intensely musical man. He commands respect, he makes you listen. But his precise, methodical manner undermined the very particular character of composers as diverse as Weill, Berlioz, Schumann and Beethoven. Order, clarity, plain truths: these are admirable qualities. But if you look for potency in your music-making, the Royal Albert Hall was not the place to be on Friday and Saturday.

Friday's Weill / Berlioz cocktail should have been an altogether headier experience. Even the curtain-raiser, a brand new Concerto for Orchestra from the Austrian composer Herbert Willi, seemed unsure of its identity. Willi has a sure hand but, as they say in show business, he needs better material. His orchestra flickered and stuttered into life, chain reactions kept everyone busy, there were snatched solos, the beginnings of some promising music for strings - but only beginnings. And a cute ending: a fleeting blink of an aria for piccolo. Now that was memorable, if only because the moment sounded so sure of itself. Every moment of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins is that, though the Albert Hall is probably the last place one wants to hear it. Enter, though, Anja Silja, the consummate singing actress who can make a tiny inflection speak at one hundred paces. She and Dohnanyi were plainly of one mind about the piece: play upon its classical formalities and let the irony look after itself. Point taken, though wasn't the plushly upholstered orchestral sound a contradiction in terms?

And so to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique where Dohnanyi found order and reason in even the most hallucinatory flights of fancy. Detail was plentiful, refinement and good taste could be taken for granted. But the torments and ardours, the musical quirks and eccentricities of a daring young imagination in full flight were fatally underprojected until surreal flute and oboe glissandi opened the door on the spooky cavortings of the Witches' Sabbath. The opium began to take effect too late in the day.

Saturday's concert brought us closer to where Dohnanyi's music-making really lives and breathes, though Beethoven's Fifth Symphony came and went with no sense of us having witnessed a rebirth of the piece. I will remember the fleet-footed pacing of the first movement, the hushed expectancy of the scherzo rhythm burrowing through to sunlit finale: the equivalent transition in Schumann's Fourth Symphony was similarly blessed.

But in both instances the moments in question promised far more than they delivered. Dohnanyi's bantam-weight, subtly pliant Schumann breathed a clean, fresh air, its inner movements charmed and romanced us, the concert-master's exquisitely relaxed solo in the trio of the scherzo more than compensating for an absolute howler of anticipation from one of the trumpets at the close of the final movement. But the one enduring memory of these concerts will be the quiet reflections and tender legatos of Jose van Dam in Mahler's Ruckert Songs. The prelude to Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the most achingly beautiful of all Mahler songs, transfigured Dohnanyi and his orchestra.

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