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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 66: Haydn, Bartók, Dvorak; Dresden Staatskapelle; Bernard Haitink; Royal Albert Hall, 5th September 2004 (AR)


Founded in 1548 by Elector Moritz of Saxony, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden is the oldest orchestra in Europe. Jean Jacques Rousseau characterised the orchestra as: "...the one with the most balanced forces and the most perfect ensemble": in 1823, one of Beethoven's conversation booklets stated: "It is generally said that the Dresden Hofkapelle is the best orchestra in Europe.": for Richard Strauss it was "the best opera orchestra in the world." : and Sir Colin Davis called it "the most individual orchestra."


The Staatskapelle Dresden not only has a uniquely distinctive sound but can also adapt its style of playing to any composer's style. This superlative orchestra has a chameleon-like quality, able to assume the colour and authentic voice of any composer they are asked to play from Mozart to Wolfgang Rihm. This was very well illustrated in Haitink's imaginatively diverse programme - the classical Haydn, the expressionistic Bartok and the romantic Dvorak.


Haitink's Haydn Symphony No. 86 in D major had courtly good manners, reserve and grace, with the strings especially shining through with a delicate transparency and eloquent sheen while the woodwind added a witty edge. The Scherzo: Vivace - Poco menon mosso was rustic and jolly with Haitink maintaining a lively pace. Yet the conductor also brought out the radical dissonances and fragmented phrasing of Haydn's scoring, making the work sound unusually modern.


The Dresdener's playing of Bartók's Dance Suite was rightly brittle and metallic with Haitink securing jagged dance rhythms and perfect orchestral balance. Here woodwind and brass took on a raucous cutting edge while the strings produced subdued subterranean sounds. The transition from Haydn to Bartok was very striking, and the orchestra seemed perfectly at home in both 18th century Austria and 20th century Hungary.


Dvorak's Seventh Symphony in D minor, Op. 70 was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1884, and premiered in London the following year, with the composer himself conducting. This score is arguably Dvorak's finest symphony but it is still submerged under the popularity of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. The Staatskapelle Dresden has not played this work for some time and so under Haitink they approached the score afresh. Haitink showed himself to be a master of structure, metre and dynamic contrasts, with the four movements seamlessly integrated and balanced. His gestures were taut and economic without excess or mannerisms. In the studio Haitnk's recordings are often referred to as 'dull' and 'safe' but live in concert he can be truly electrifying as he was here. The orchestra responded to his minutest gestures with admirable precision.


In this essentially dark and brooding score the Staatskapelle took on more sombre hues and a romantic warmth. The Allegro maestoso had a striving, pulsating energy while the Poco adagio had a grave, moody melancholy that was deeply moving.


Haitink secured swaggering, lilting grace in the Menuet & Trio: Allegretto almost tempting one to want to get up and dance along with it. The Finale: Allegro con spirito was just that - bursting with throbbing energy and thrusting urgency. The closing bars punctuated by timpanist Thomas Käppler had intense power and weight. This performance indeed brought out the paradox of the work, where the darkness of the playing emphasised the light shining through the score. This was both an illuminating and extraordinarily grave performance, with magnificent solo work from the flautist and horn player, whilst the strings were wonderfully rich and warm.


A glowing performance of Weber's Oberon Overture was a welcome and fitting encore giving the Dresdener's yet another chance to show off their liquid, golden virtuosity. Anyone asked to review this wonderful orchestra, under the baton of this great Chief Conductor, had best brush up their superlatives.


Alex Russell



Further listening:



Bartók: Dance Suite; Divertimento, Pierre Boulez, Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

Deutsche Grammophon: DG: 445825.



Dvorak Symphony Number Seven in D minor, Op. 70: James Levine, Chicago Symphony Orchestra: RCA Red Seal: RCD1-5427.



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