Christoph von Dohnányi Conducts CSO Review – Spirited Piano Concerto with Two More Somber Compositions

von Dohnanyi is recognized as one of the world's preeminent orchestral and opera conductors. Photo: Terry O'Neill


In this interview with conductor Christoph von Dohnányi in 2007 he shares that his aim is always to understand what the composer wanted.



In this recent concert von Dohnányi’s baton brought us his interpretation of three composers’ desires—Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and lesser-known Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.


The crowd at this Friday matinee was seemingly peppered with many more high school students than usual.  How interesting that so many young ears were there to hear two works—“Musique funèbre” by Lutoslawski and “Pathétique” by Tchaikovsky—that evoke the darker themes of human experience, loss and anguish. The finger-flying performance of Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37” by soloist Paul Lewis provided the contrast needed. 


From the opening by two cellos to the ending of one cello fading into silence, “Musique funèbre” was more unsettling than saddening as a funeral dirge per se is expected to be.  Like many Bartók compositions—the composer to whom this piece was seen as a farewell—there were many a climbing musical phrases that would reach an apogee and then fold upon itself.  The drama came full impact in the ending, where, as the program notes describe, “silence carries as much weight as the notes themselves.”


Although under a different conductor’s baton, this recording of Paul Lewis performing Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” at an earlier BBC proms shows the contrast to any music “..funèbre..” or “..Pathétique”.



With a curly hairstyle not dissimilar to that Beethoven is often portrayed as wearing, Lewis made this demanding performance seem effortless.  His solo was woven seamlessly into the larger orchestra.   It was as much visual spectacle and ear candy.


Paul Lewis signed copies of his recordings in a Symphony Center ballroom following the performance. Photo: Jack Liebeck


This was one of those performances where the acoustics of the Symphony Center, with help by the CSO’s expert sound engineering, combined to give that thrill of LIVE performance in a maximum way.


After intermission it was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, called “Pathétique”, which we learned in the program notes is a name for the work that the composer agreed to but later came to regret. 


The program notes also recounted —perhaps an apocryphal view–how this work is a lamentation on Tchaikovsky’s suppressed homosexual longings and pains of unrequited desires that he suffered because he was a homosexual.  Here too it was interesting to look at the many young students in the crowd—many at the age of sexual awakening—who now live in a time and place where acceptance of homosexuality is rapidly moving to the mainstream.  Did they hear the somber opening by the bassoon and the wailing trombone lines as history lesson or as something within reach of their real-time adolescent angst? 


Christoph von Dohnanyi is principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London as well as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Photo: Courtesy of Decca Records


Much food for thought, fed as much by the music itself as the stellar program book that, as usual, exceeds all expectations for giving background on the music we heard and its historical context.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts continue at Symphony Center, 220 South Michigan, through June 28.  For tickets or information on upcoming concerts visit the CSO website ( or call 312 – 294 – 3000.




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