A person sitting with closed eyes throughout last night's all-Brahms program at the Kennedy Center would have had some reason to wonder if the players hadn't gotten fed up and switched conductors at intermission - and somewhat for the better. But even the improvement in the second half didn't save the evening from disappointment.
It's just that Loren Maazel's conducting of the Fourth Symphony in the final part at least made interpretive sense. Whereas his performances before hand didn't.
The program opened with a stiff rendition of the normally blazing Tragic Overture, of so little intensity that it might as well have been called Gerious Overture.
Time and again Maazel seemed more interested in clarity than content. Phrases didn't so much rise and fall as just begin and end. Rhythms often failed to spring. The message of the music slipped most of the time. In the Variations on a Theme by Hayden the nervous breathlessness of the penultimate variation that is meant to prepare us for the confident reasurance of the final was utterly lost in the stodgy tempo and lack of inflection. It's like taking the shadows out of a Rembrandt.
In the symphony Maazel was at least throwing himself into the music. If a little slow for my taste, the performance was at least passionate and lyrical.
There was one other problem. Normally the Cleveland Orchestra is brilliant at surmounting Brahms' musical obstacle courses. But in the Center's week-long Brahms Festival there is so little time for rehearsal that imprecisions are inevitable, and stumbles in the horns dotted last night's concert. On television, I once heard the late George Szell begin a rehearsal by proudly declaring, "Gentlemen, we will simply play this work the way the Cleveland Orchestra plays it." Last night they didn't have a chance to reach the exalted standard.