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S & H Concert Review

Great Orchestras: Dresden Staatskapelle of Saxony, Ion Marin (cond), Barbican, 26th January 2002 (MB).


Weber – Euryanthe Overture
Hindemith – Symphony, Mathis der Maler
Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

One of the oldest orchestras in the world, the great Dresden Staatskapelle are at the very top of any one’s list of the world’s finest orchestras. An instrument, as opposed to a conventional symphony orchestra, they have a truly unique sound – opulent, blended, sumptuous – indeed, a myriad of adjectives could be used to describe this very special band. Sinopoli (still listed in the programme booklet as the orchestra’s chief conductor, although with the date of his death added) left them in remarkable shape – and left them with a string section unmatched anywhere. The NDR Symphony Orchestra may have brought even greater depth of tone in a remarkable Barbican concert last year under Eschenbach, but what the Dresdeners have is an astonishing ear for what they play. It is symptomatic of an orchestra well heeled in opera performance, where the players are compelled to listen to each other. This is an orchestra full of soloists, each with a human voice capable of individual tone. Playing together, they have a magnetic beauty you simply won’t experience with any other orchestra. As Richard Wagner once said of them, ‘they are a miraculous harp’.

This carefully designed programme highlighted three composers with whom this orchestra has close connections. Weber was once the orchestra’s chief conductor (followed by Wagner, who arranged for the return of Weber’s bones to Germany), and Hindemith had many works premiered by the orchestra (although not the Mathis der Maler Symphony which was first heard under Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic). Strauss had a sixty-year relationship with the orchestra during which period nine of his operas were premiered in Dresden by the orchestra.

To each of the pieces showcased the orchestra brought a special authority. The opening Weber overture brought magnificent playing, especially from the horns who, throughout this concert, were exemplary in tone and phrasing. Their sound was golden with breath control of frightening perfection. The timpani were as well balanced as you could wish for and the performance did not lack panache, with resplendent string’s mahogany in their colouring. The Jubel Overture, which the Dresdeners played as an encore, was equally finely wrought, although it is arguable that Ion Marin perhaps made the tuttis heavier than they might normally sound, although there was a genuine clarity to the phrasing which a lesser orchestra might not easily have masked.

The Mathis der Maler was both highly dramatic and tense, with vivid coloration giving unusual beauty to a work which can occasionally seem bloated and characterless. If the opening movement seems more akin to biblical film music (which in part it is) the work projects a typically symphonic argument between good and evil. In part this is because of the tonal tension, but it also requires a rather fine orchestra to navigate the lucid and transparent textures, and here it was perfectly done. The final movement showed this great orchestra at its collective best – the timpani were thrilling, the strings just rhetorical enough without sounding precious, the triplets played with brilliance, the brass and woodwind bleating with a creeping accelerando.

Strauss’ great tone poem is becoming increasingly difficult to bring off in live concert, and mostly this is due to a lack of good Strauss interpreters. Indeed, Ion Marin does not strike me as a natural Straussian, and although the orchestra were fabulous throughout this work (some momentary intonation problems on the trumpets apart) it is not the performance I quite expected. Marin’s rubato slipped unerringly towards extremes – from a self-consciously slow opening to a hysterical, almost overflowing ‘Of Joys and Passion’. There were many beautiful things – an exquisite solo from the leader, Matthias Wollong, and an incandescently phrased cello solo from Friedwart-Christian Dittman, to mention two outstanding individual performances. There were some extraordinary dynamic moments, too – not least an astonishing double bass pizzicato which, despite its pianissimo marking, somehow enveloped the Barbican. An amazing moment.

Wonderful playing made this a memorable concert. I hope Haitink, who takes over in mid-2002, will bring them to our shores more often. Nothing in this country remotely equals them.

Marc Bridle


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