Cleveland Orchestra pulls off evocative Mahler, Schubert with Runnicles in for Dohnanyi

Donald Runnicles, Michelle DeYoung
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Disappointed Christoph von Dohnanyi was unable to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra this week at Severance Hall? Absolutely. 

Disappointed in the work of his replacement, Donald Runnicles? Hardly.

No doubt Dohnanyi had momentous things to say with Schubert and Mahler, two of his longtime specialties. But Runnicles is no novice, either. In fact, given his background in opera, he can't even rightly be viewed as a runner-up.

His Mahler Thursday night was a thing of special beauty. With the help of two fine vocalists, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and tenor Paul Groves, Runnicles and the orchestra crafted a performance of "Das Lied von der Erde" that was satisfying on every level.

Not one to rush or gloss over detail, Runnicles gave a spacious and luminous reading, giving both his soloists and the ensemble time not to wallow but merely to breathe and savor every nuance. So thoroughly evocative was the performance, it was as if the group had rehearsed the piece bar by bar.

Still, it was the singers who made this a "Song of the Earth" for the ages.

Grove, in his three songs based on ancient Chinese poetry, proved a lusty and evocative force, conjuring with bright and agile voice the exuberance brought on by alcohol and the magical stillness of an afternoon in the park. He also managed to convey that most elusive and most critical of Mahlerian moods: joy tinged with melancholy.

As for DeYoung, there was literally nothing she didn't express. As a unit, her three scenes steeped in loneliness, physical beauty, and the sweet sorrow of parting constituted a miniature opera in their own right, a sumptuous distillation of all of life's emotions. In some hands, "The Farewell" can feel like an eternity; In DeYoung's, in the mind of this listener, it was over all too quickly.

And what lustrous work by the orchestra. Given a long leash by Runnicles, the ensemble made the most of the lavishly colorful score. Oboe, clarinets, harp, flute, celesta, mandolin, percussion: All at some point took spellbinding turns in the spotlight.

Disappointing is far too strong a term for Thursday's performance of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony No. 8. A more accurate description would be somewhat less enchanting.

Perfectly suited to "Das Lied," the conductor's operatic mindset proved less helpful in the clean, concise realm of Schubert. The space and lyricism he coaxed from the orchestra were exquisite but also deleterious to momentum and vitality. B Minor is a menacing key, not a leaden one.

Still, this "Unfinished" was far from unworthy. The drama under Runnicles may have run slowly, but it also ran high as the conductor maximized contrasts and opted for blunt gestures over smooth, gentle transitions. Mellifluous solos by clarinetist Robert Woolfrey and assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun were also just the highlights of a detailed and neatly laid-out Andante.

It's been over a decade since Runnicles last conducted the Cleveland Orchestra, and it took an unfortunate illness in Dohnanyi to get him here this time. He shouldn't be such an infrequent guest. His Mahler alone this week more than justifies a speedy return. 

Read the rest of the review here