It is hard to complain about what was done last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall by conductor Erich Leinsdorf, pianist John Browning and the Cleveland Orchestra. All parties performed a program of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner at a level of routine excellence that we cannot yet take for granted in Washington.
But let's try a small complaint, anyway; the excellence was routine and it was achieved at a price. The price may be reasonable, but it should not be paid unconsciously. Since it is paid primarily in Cleveland, we may even spare a bit of gratitude that Washington can occasionally enjoy the benefits without paying the full price.
The Cleveland Orchestra, perhaps a shade below the perfection achieved under the late George Szell, can still claim to be one of the world's great orchestras and sometimes the world's largest chamber ensemble. In most of last night's repertoire -- not in Wagner's "Meistersinger" Prelude, but in Mozart's Overture to "The Magic Flute," Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto and Schumann's "Spring" Symphony -- the chamber music element was clearly evident. Leinsdorf deserves full credit for letting it happen with subtle guidance and without undue interference.
This repertoire is totally familiar to the orchestra; it could have been played in any program of its 65-year existence, and it was played with the ease of familiarity and the respect due to proven greatness. Still, the program suffered from severe limitations that help define the basic character of the orchestra; it was as though the world had no composers whose native language was not German, no composers born since the Battle of Waterloo. The lack of daring in the choice of repertoire, when one stops to think about it, was as breathtaking as the polish of the performance.
If the performance had a weakness, it was probably in the horns, which were not exactly bad, not quite insecure, but lacking in presence during several exposed passages in the Beethoven and Schumann. A few of the tempos were slightly brisk, and Leinsdorf's beat is not the world's most flexible -- but all these are trifles barely worth mentioning. Leinsdorf is a great conductor, particularly in the Schumann where he used the quality of the orchestra's voice effectively to distract attention from the composer's loose syntax. Browning is a highly adept pianist, and the orchestra is a living museum of exquisite old music. There were no surprises, but for all practical purposes there was nothing wrong.