Christoph von Dohnányi
Why are conductors get so much more well known that others? The classical music industry has it’s own mechanisms of getting attention. I’m not sure I’ve fully understood them yet.
In any case, let me take a recent release by German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi as trigger to write about this conductor I really like a lot, but probably isn’t as famous as he could (or should?) be?
Von Dohnányi, born in Berlin in 1929, started his training as… a lawyer. Yes, he went to law school in Munich before deciding that music was more his thing. Well to be fair, he had some family history, his father Ernst (Ernö) von Dohnányi was a pianist and composer.
You could assume that Dohnányi’s talent was rather quickly recognized, given that in his early years he worked with giants like Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti.
Later on, he became conductor of major orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra, that Georges Szell had really turned into a world class ensemble, and the Philharmonia orchestra, of Karajan and Klemperer fame.
He also worked with many other leading orchestras, be it in Boston, New York, Paris, or Vienna.
His recording of the Mendelssohn symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic are still among my absolute favorite versions, especially for no. 3 and 4.
Nevertheless, I as said initially, I don’t see his name pop up as often as you think as one of the great conductors of our time.
I’ve said it before, I’m not a big fan of Schubert’s symphonies in general. OK, there is the beautiful Unfinished, but anything before that to me is only of passing interest. On the other hand, Schubert obviously was an absolute genius for chamber music (e.g. here, and here), piano music (see this review), or the Lied. Unfortunately, he passed away way too early. You can only wonder what Schubert’s music would have been had he reached the age of Beethoven or Brahms.
I also have somehow a difficult connection to his so called Great Symphony, or no. 9 in C-major.
Side note: Actually C-major is a really boring key. It’s the one you play on a piano if you just leave out all the black keys. By musicologists and composers it is often described as noble and majestic. I personally like minor key quite a bit more. But let’s close the parenthesis here.
What really annoys me (well that’s a strong word) about Schubert’s symphony no. 9 is what Robert Schumann called the Himmlische Längen (heavenly length) of this work, there are just some repetitions too many for me.
But that minor annoyance set apart, it is still a beautiful piece of music.
Especially when it get’s played by a conductor I really like…..
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Live in Concert – Christoph von Dohnányi – Philharmonia Orchestra (Signum Classics 2016)
Another parenthesis here: what do you plan to do when you’re about to turn 87 years old? Still working? Probably not.
Well, not so for our hero of the story here, who recorded this beautiful album at the age of 86, in a live performance.
What do I like about this recording?
Well, in a nutshell it has just the right balance of gravitas and lightness that this work needs. You have the big sound of a major orchestra, but there is never anything static about it, always positive tension, and most of all, a lot of fun and joyfulness.
I suggest you read this insightful interview with the conductor about this particular recording here on Prestoclassical.
My rating: 4 stars
You can find it here (Qobuz), and here (Signum Records)
6 thoughts on “Christoph von Dohnányi – A Totally Underrated Conductor”
Ernö von Dohnänyi was his grandfather, not his father. Ernö’s son and Christoph’s father, Hans, was a lawyer. Ernö was an open Nazi sympathizer. Hans von Dohnányi was a resister to the Nazi regime, and was ultimately caught and executed by the Nazis after being involved in several (failed) attempts to assassinate Hitler. Hans von Dohnányi also helped rescue Jews by smuggling them over the border to Switzerland.
I am not sure he is so underrated. He’s just likely scaling back on his commitments, given his age. He was the longtime music director in Cleveland (1984-2002), during which time they may have become arguably the top orchestra in the US (they certainly were not there before or since), although he compared his own orchestra unfavorably to the Vienna Philharmonic where he has been a frequent guest for decades (I last saw him live at the helm of the Philharmoniker during the 2014 Salzburg Festival conducting Strauss and Bruckner).
I agree with you on the Mendelssohn symphonies. I might suggest his Salome (with Malfitano, Terfel, and the Philharmoniker) is the best available recording of that opera. You may also enjoy the Beethoven 4 & 8 and the Dvorak 6 he did with Cleveland.
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Thanks for the clarification on Dohnanyi’s family tree, very interesting and telling me to do more proper research instead of just sometimes writing from (false in this case).
With regards to my note on underrated, he certainly isn’t a household name as much as some others of the generation before or after him.
That said, I agree BD did an amazing job with the Cleveland!
And while I do have the Beethoven you mention, I need to check out the other recommendations you gave!