Christoph von Dohnányi – A Totally Underrated Conductor

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.

Schubert’s Symphonies

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)

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 Live In Concert Christoph von Dohnanyi Philharmonia Orchestra Signum Classics

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)