Mike Silverton
30 December 2001

Disc one:
Arnold Schoenberg: Die Jakobsleiter (The Jacob’s Ladder).
A Survivor from Warsaw. Variations for Orchestra. Julian Patrick, baritone; William Johns, tenor; Jaroslav Kachel, tenor; Andrew Foldi, bass-baritone; Oskar Hildebrandt, baritone; Helga Pilarczyk, soprano; Celina Lindsley, sorpano (Jacob’s Ladder). Günther Reich, narrator; Cleveland Orchestra Chamber Chorus (Survivor).

Disc two: Richard Wagner: Overture to Rienzi.
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No.4 (“Romantic”) in E-flat major.

Disc three: Dmitri Shostakovitch: Symphony No.1 in F minor, op.10.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36.

Disc four: Witold Lutoslawski: Musique Funèbre (Funeral Music).
Béla Bartók: Divertimento for Strings.
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 (“Classical”) in D major.
Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.

Disc five: Franz Schubert: Symphony No.5 in B-flat major, D.485.
John Adams: The Wound-Dresser.
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) in C minor, first movement. Sanford Sylvan, baritone (Adams).

Disc six: Mahler: Symphony No.2, remaining movements. Ruth Ziesak, soprano; Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus (Mahler).

Disc seven: Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No.5 in C minor, op. 67.
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major, op.83. Garrick Ohlsson, piano (Brahms).

Disc eight: Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No.3. Hector Berlioz: Three excerpts fromThe Damnation of Faust: “Will-o’-the-Wisps,” “Dance of the Sylphs,” “Hungarian March.” Claude Debussy: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun.
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No.4 (“Italian”) in A major, op.90.

Disc nine: Prelude to Irmelin. Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony No.88 in G major. Edgard Varèse: Ecuatorial.
Charles Ives: Central Park in the Dark. Leoš Janácek: Sinfonietta.

Disc ten: César Franck: Symphony in D minor. Alfred Schnittke: (K)ein Sommernachtstraum. Jean Sibelius: Symphony No.5 in E-flat major, op.82. Musical Arts Association MAA 01032, 10 CDs.

I should be getting onerous-duty pay for the above. How strange it must look to the reader who anticipated hardware specs. I normally do my music writing and The Absolute Sound. However, aspects of this 10-disc set recommend coverage in Clement Perry’s Stereo Times.

I’ve known a lot of audiophiles who’d like to develop a more intimate connection with classical music but hesitate. Is performance X of symphony Y a good one – there are so many to choose from! More important, is it well enough recorded to make my system sing? There’s no way to put this other than bluntly: sonic excellence aside, much of the music on audiophiles’ shelves tends to the bland and second-rate. By and large, the labels that serve our community disappoint; further, their raison d’être is open to question when one hears so many stellar productions on labels that take no pains to promote themselves as audiophile. While on the subject, one wonders about the peculiarly audiophile vinyl-über-alles clique. Can their enthusiasms have much to do with music, given that, for close to two decades, just about everything of interest, creative and interpretive, has been appearing on the digital medium? Nostalgia has its place, but here in Audiophilia it resembles a fixation.

If you fit the description of a well-intentioned but timid consumer, this Dohnányi-Cleveland set may be the very thing. While $175’s steep for ten domestic CDs, I’m addressing a sector that will spring without blinking for a set of interconnects that costs what one pays for a new washer-dryer. Another concern, voiced by my TAS editor, is availability. This is a gift-shop item, yes, specifically that of the Cleveland Orchestra. But you’re already online. One simply goes

The program: somewhat too out-there for Music Appreciation 101 yet familiar fare to the connoisseur – in other words, quite perfect for the reader who wants to get into the classical swim more or less on the pool’s discovery side without quite knowing where to dive. And then there’s the sound. These are live recordings – none is commercially available – and therefore all the more remarkable for the qualities they project.

Or perhaps, on reflection, not so remarkable. The technical folk recorded as unobtrusively as possible, i.e., minimally. Paying Clevelanders prefer not to squint at their orchestra though a thicket of recording paraphernalia. Further, the engineers needed to be extraordinarily familiar with the acoustics of the house, since minimal technique requires a great deal of preliminary fuss, which explains multi-miking’s appeal: among the bean-counters, time as money takes precedence. Put a microphone on everything in sight and correct for it later – fippleflutes up, crumhorns down. Problem is, over-engineered sessions rarely sound lifelike. This Dohnányi-Cleveland set does. For hall-capture, the sense a concert in its space, I’ve heard little that surpasses. Quite a few recordings successfully create heightened illusions of width and depth (and sometimes height), along with exquisitely transparent location of vocalists, instrumentalists and instrumental sections. I’ve heard it said that this auditory overkill compensates for the absence of the visual stimuli we experience in the concert hall, and it’s probably true. (Shut your eyes in an orchestral venue and ask yourself whether you’re sensing the dimensionality, resolution and transparency your audio system provides.) All the more interesting, then, that these Cleveland recordings exaggerate nothing, and still, we’re there. You may prefer the compensations I’ve mentioned. Whether a spot-on facsimile of you-are-thereness stands as the ideal remains, as we know, a subject of debate. You may feel that these Severance Hall recordings stint on resolution, transparency and spaciousness. Perhaps so, but in terms of what I hear when I’m listening to an assemblage of unamplified musicians in a live-music venue, they come very close to the real thing. It’s more a question of whether the real thing’s synonymous with the Ideal, or in Harry Pearson’s coinage, the absolute sound. And we haven’t even touched on the contributions of one’s listening room.

Which brings us to these performances. I question only the inclusion of the quasi-operatic Jacob’s Ladder, one of three Schoenberg works on the first CD and the set’s sore thumb. Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw is likewise harsh, but rightly so, in keeping with its subject. The other 20th-century works in Dohnányi’s program provide no occasion for trepidation. The inclusion of Shostakovitch’s youthful First rather than his better known and more widely recorded symphonies is an interesting choice that nicely balances the set’s chestnuts, e.g., the Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, et al, not to neglect Mahler’s stentorian Second Symphony. A few performances impress me as remarkably fine: Sibelius’s ravishing Fifth Symphony, Liszt’s Les Préludes, Hindemith’s lovely and sprightly Symphonic Metamorphosis, Janácek’s thrilling Sinfonietta, which comes close in intensity to Sir Charles Mackerras’s with the Vienna Philharmonic on a London CD [410 138-2]. You’ll also get a charge out of Varèse’s mystical Equatorial, the equal at least of several I’ve heard. To say it again, quite the collection for the curious audiophile: one conductor’s viewpoint with a world-class orchestra and splendid soloists to see it through.

The recordings and their notes commemorate Dohnányi’s directorship from 1984 to 2001, and the program, which at first blush might seem an ill-fitting motley, intends to demonstrate his range. Severance Hall reopened in January 2000 after an extensive (and, as the annotator mentions as a nice, vulgar touch, multi-million dollar) renovation. This performance of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony marks the occasion. Should you buy the set on my recommendation, I’d be curious to know whether you can hear a before-and-after difference.

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