MUSIC / Proms: In bold focus: Anthony Payne admires the thought-provoking Cleveland Orchestra

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The Independent Culture
This last week of August has seen a series of visits to the Proms by renowned foreign orchestras. After concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra there were two programmes at the weekend by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra which focused boldly on the modern repertory.

The first of the two might have looked odd on paper, with music by two radical modernists framing a popular romantic favourite in Dvorak's New World Symphony. In the event, the mix proved thought-provoking and rewarding.

Opening with one of Charles Ives's typically iconoclastic visions, Central Park in the Dark, the orchestra spun out the mystical statement of densely quiet string harmonies with rapt concentration, while the central explosion of disruptive elements flung across the textural map with abrasive vitality. Some details were lacking at this point, but the return of cosmic peace unaffected by conflict made its touching effect.

If Ives disrupts his calm process just once, Birtwistle constantly sends shock waves across the surface of his massive Earth Dances. Layers of conflicting mechanisms grind on, sometimes mingling below ground to produce an ominous heaving and juddering, at other times emerging to fearsome effect.

The latter stages, most powerfully charcterised and articulated by Dohnanyi, present Birtwistle's vision at its most compellingly granitic. Some of the densely packed textural conglomorates in the work's central span sounded too cryptic for too long, but the hall's resonance favoured wind and percussion, which meant that all-important linear elements were obscured.

In this context, Dvorak's symphony might have been expected to sound out of place - the comfortable and tuneful palliative. In fact, it is a work of visionary dislocations in tonal, harmonic and thematic usage, and Dohnanyi's freshness of approach rescued it from the hackneyed reputation it has undeservedly acquired. When performed like this, the New World comes into its own as a very special masterpiece.

Playing of the liveliest virtuosity and poetic sensitivity was also in evidence throughout the second programme. The chamber music-like understanding enabled Webern's refractive orchestration of the Ricercar from Bach's The Musical Offering to make its exquisite effect. This was followed by a spellbinding performance of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto. Christian Tetzlaff's charm and control brought alive the lyricism of a work which can sometimes sound merely spiky. The orchestra, too, shaped Stravinksky's textures with a singing luminosity.

Finally there was a dazzling interpretation of Mahler's First Symphony. The naive charm of the first two movements was presented with heartwarming naturalness; the final journey from agony to triumph of mind and spirit totally convinced.