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The Tennstedt touch: depth, richness, spontaneity

The first time I heard Klaus Tennstedt was when he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in its own Symphony Hall in 1974. The all-Brahms program began with the ``Academic Festival Overture.'' From the opening, lumbering chords -- the richness and depth of the sound, the flexibility and utter naturalness of the tempo set, and the utter rightness of the mood -- it was obvious that this conductor was not only trained in the old-fashioned Germanic traditions, but that he dearly loved and respected them. The following week his program was devoted to Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, in a performance that was received by press and audience alike with nearly unprecedented acclaim. In the ensuing decade, his ties with such orchestras as the Philadelphia, and the New York, Berlin, and London Philharmonics, have strengthened. He was heard at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this month, and has just concluded a run of guest appearances with the New York Philharmonic. His recording career continues to offer many treasures.

Tennstedt's strength is his ability to make music sound spontaneous, fresh-from- the-pen. Even Beethoven's overplayed Fifth (with the New York Philharmonic) took on a luster and a spontaneity that go against the grain of so many maestros of his generation and younger, who meticulously map out every performance in such matters as pre-set tempo changes and ruthlessly calculated climaxes that rob the music of any true sense of release.

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Tennstedt is willing to walk the thin edge between excitement and sheer danger to pursue his musical vision: He will allow a climax to erupt violently, even if it takes the pretty edge off the orchestral sound; he will risk slowing a tempo down to create something magical even if it means a few moments of untidy ensemble as he tries to sustain tension in a long, arching musical line.

There are times when all that spontaneous abandon gets Tennstedt into trouble. I remember his rendition of Mahler's Third Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, where, from the opening measures, it was clear that orchestra and conductor were not communicating. The more he tried to prod, cajole, and egg the orchestra on, the more askew the proceedings became, until a certain sense of desperation replaced the needed apotheosis. This trouble occurred again, to a lesser degree, a few weeks ago -- same orchestra, same hall -- with Bruckner's Seventh.

Tennstedt's Bruckner, on a good night, is something magical, even transcendental. His sympathy with Bruckner's sprawling spiritual visions, and his ability to communicate all the halting-stepsprogress of the journey from doubt to reaffirmation that is at the core of all of Bruckner's music, can be awe-inspiring. Here, the performance -- while full of lovely details, and awash in the sort of lush orchestral sound he can elicit from the players -- never really gathered the rolling momentum of the best of the Philadelphia-Tennstedt connection.

This was unexpected, because the performance of the first work on the program, Bruch's First Violin Concerto, presaged glorious things. Tennstedt gave his soloist, Elmar Oliveira, a sumptuous, pliant accompaniment, and the violinist returned the favor with eloquent, heartfelt playing.

Happily, Tennstedt clicks with the New York Philharmonic. On the same program as the Beethoven Fifth mentioned earlier was a sweeping account of Strauss's ``Don Quixote,'' in which the conductor took advantage of the orchestra's tendency to gruff outbursts, while allowing moments of aural opulence to invade whenever possible. Principal cellist Lorne Monroe and principal violist Paul Neubauer were the dramatically alert soloists; the orchestra sounded enthusiastically persuaded by Tennstedt's storytelling manner in this most specific of depictive tone poems.

The following week, Dvorak's Ninth impressed for the lyrical propulsiveness of the reading, the ability to melt the ear at one moment, then erupt with intentionally raucous power the next. Some moments lacked finesse, it is true. Still, the Largo breathed with hushed, aching beauty. For the record, a pliant accompaniment to Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was met with coolness by the soloist Bella Davidovich, who substituted a mechanical, correct bravado for the sort of fluent elegance one has come to expect from her.

Does Tennstedt's spontaneity spill over into the recording studio? Sometimes, though most often with the Berlin Philharmonic. His newest release with that orchestra, the Dvorak Ninth, has qualities similar to the performance in New York. Tennstedt, an exclusive EMI/Angel artist, asks the usually smooth Berlin brass to be gruff, and he puts that gruffness to good use. (DS-38140).

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A recent Schubert Ninth (DS-37898) is equally rough, almost peasantish at times: Tennstedt is clearly eschewing the homogenized prettiness others find in this score. A Bruckner Fourth, again with the Berlin Philharmonic, is a stunning sample of what makes Tennstedt's Bruckner so special. Here, that brass sounds in true, sumptuous form, and the performance is shaped and built in such a way as to make all the climaxes ring in wall-rattling fervor (DSB-3935).

The recordings with his own London Philharmonic have been, for the most part, curiously disappointing. The Mahler cycle, however, which is now complete but for the Eighth Symphony, has begun to offer important performances in the recent releases: a Sixth of savage magnificence (DSB-3945); a meltingly lyrical yet exciting Fourth, with Lucia Popp the lovely soloist (DS-37954); and a Second (``Resurrection'') that sustains a thrilling mood and continuity throughout (DS-37954). A disc of suites from Prokofiev's ``Lieutenant Kije'' and Kodaly's ``Hary Janos'' (DS-38095) shows the London Philharmonic finally coming around to an audible sense of the thrill of making sumptuous music together.

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