Dohnanyi makes a point

Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who is in Philly. He leaves the heroism to musicians.
Conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, who is in Philly. He leaves the heroism to musicians. (ANDRAS GARRELS)
Posted: March 17, 2013

Humility comes in all strains, but on the podium, its manifestation appearing with decreasing regularity is the conductor who does the greater part of his activism in rehearsal, while leaving any heroism in performance to the ensemble.

Christoph von Dohnányi presided elegantly over that dynamic Thursday night for his second week with the Philadelphia Orchestra. For marketing purposes, the concert fell under the umbrella of Viennese masters - Schubert and Bruckner. Dohnányi had a more specific point to make. The ability to spin sophisticated ideas from country tunes, the precarious pivoting between emotional poles - Bruckner grew directly out of Schubert.

In spirit and form, isn't the third movement of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony an elaboration on the third movement of Schubert's Piano Sonata in G (D. 894)? Their respective repertoire resounds with like echoes.

Dohnányi chose one of Schubert's most evolved statements, the Symphony No. 8, "Unfinished," as prelude to the Bruckner No. 4, "Romantic." With restraint and authority, the conductor signaled that the two works have been popularly misunderstood.

Dohnányi's path to humility starts with the score. Few take notice that the dynamic specified for that first passionate major-key theme in the opening of Schubert's symphony is pianissimo - which means passion had nothing to do with it. By keeping the cellos quiet, he rescaled the two contrasting moods of the first movement, from tragedy and romance to something more like despair and contentment. Those reedy violin octave jumps at the end of the second movement are like nothing else in Schubert's output; Dohnányi gave them a frightening delicacy.

Stability on the podium is efficacious to all kinds of qualities in the ensemble, but most striking in the Schubert were certain instrumental blendings (oboist Peter Smith + clarinetist Ricardo Morales = lithe accord). In Bruckner, it was the horns ringing impressively in a single voice, particularly at the end of the first movement.

Dohnányi, conducting without the aid of a score, inspired the viola section to an ideal, quietly singing voice in their second-movement solos. Some of the understated approach in the first three movements gave way to more drama in the fourth, which restates much of the previous material. The "Finale" sprawls a bit, but under Dohnányi, it unspooled episodically, the maestro granting himself an expressivity more luxurious than before.


Additional performance:

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10 to $127. Information: 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org.

Contact Peter Dobrin

at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com.

Read his blog at www.philly.com/artswatch.

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