Isaac Stern once said that George Szell knew more about music than anyone else he had ever known. And certainly, since Szell's death in 1970, his remarkable Cleveland Orchestra, which he shaped almost entirely, has not quite exuded the musicality that it had under him -- of going beyond brilliant effects into a sort of chamber-music quality that was unique among orchestras.
The Cleveland's concert last night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall showed so memorably some of the musicality that Stern was referring to. It was the sort of thing that one did not hear in the many flashy moments. It was more often in the seductive way that the Cleveland's new music director, Christoph von Dohnanyi, had the players eliding into transitions -- soft and expectant.
It was Dohnanyi's debut here with the Cleveland, and it impressed especially because it did not rest on conventional superstar guest-conductor glitz as the safe way to impress what must have been an entirely first-time audience.
The dominant work in the three-piece program was the brooding Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto, one of the dozen or so pillars of the repertoire for piano and orchestra. The soloist was Alfred Brendel, whose depth of command of this enormously challenging music is about as fine as you will hear from a contemporary artist -- its disturbing silences as well as something so spectacular as the last-movement cadenza among the piano's ultimate challenges. It was Brendel's second appearance here in less than a month, and may he continue coming all the more frequently.
What Dohnanyi contributed to this moving performance was a real sensitivity to the contours of the music. There were small felicities, but there were also those thundering attacks at the return of the main theme of the first movement, which could not have been more spectacular in their precision or in their fullness of sound.
In the year since the loss of George Szell, mediocre playing has never been a problem of the group he mostly shaped. In the subsequent years under Lorin Maazel as music director one did not hear bad execution, but there was not the kind of caring concentration on collaboration with a soloist that was heard last night. One cannot recall the last time that a conductor in a concerto was looking at a soloist so often. Dohnanyi was truly exerting his abilities, and the orchestra knew it.
Earlier in the program there were worthy but easier showpieces for Dohnanyi: Barto'k's Divertimento for string orchestra and Janacek's "Taras Bulba." Each was impressively done, and the playing by the orchestra's tympani and trombones in the Janacek was spectacular.