Friday 3 June 2016

Beethoven & Strauss - Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra at the Dresden Music Festival

Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra
Beethoven, Strauss; Igor Levit, Dresden Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky; Dresden Music Festival at the Albertinum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 29 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Beethoven and Strauss in a programme which was a study in contrasts

The Dresden Philharmonic's regular home, the Kulturpalast in Dresden, is currently closed for re-development and so the orchestra is giving performances in a number of venues around Dresden. For its appearance at the Dresden Music Festival on 29 May 2016, the orchestra performed in the central courtyard of the Albertinum, a bright roofed space created during the restoration following the disastrous floods in 2002.

On 29 May, the orchestra was joined by conductor Vassily Sinaisky and pianist Igor Levit for a programme which included just two works, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major and Richard Strauss's Sinfonia Domestica.

The central courtyard of the Albertinum is not an idea concert space, it is a little too far from the ideal shoe-box being rather too long and too high. I understand from talking to my neighbours at the concert that the sound can vary enormously depending on where you are in the room. It was also very, very warm and pianist Igor Levit played in shirtsleeves.

Igor Levit - Felix Broede
Igor Levit - photo Felix Broede
Interest was very much focussed on Levit in the Beethoven concerto, though the contribution from Sinaisky and the orchestra was a nice combination of strong sound and classical style. Levit's opening peroration was very grand, but nicely fluid. His account of the opening theme was remarkably gentle, and from the outset it was clear that he had a very intimate relationship with the piano keys, leaning over closely.

The performance was quite a study in contrasts, with Levit giving us some amazingly delicate piano playing, yet with stupendously firm articulation where necessary. There was real power for the big chords and scale passages, and daringly quiet moments too. Part of the contrast came from the suspicion that Sinaisky did not quite share Levit's view of the concerto, with the orchestral tutti's often being quite robust.

The second movement, though, had the orchestra quiet and intense. Levit's entry was astonishing, the piano sound barely there. Throughout the movement he created a lovely singing tone, with fine articulation and lots of little rubatos, complemented by some lovely wind solos. There were, however, moments when the orchestral contributions were far more to the fore than the piano solo, again giving a sense of dichotomy between soloist and conductor. The concluding pre-echo of the last movement was pure magic. The last movement proper exploded with vitality in the piano. Levit's reading was quite serious and intense, but full of lovely rhythmic articulation, and the by now familiar alternations between the magically delicate and explosive. Whilst I would not have called the performance joyous, it had a strong vivacity and a sense that all concerned were enjoying themselves, Levit included.

Richard Strauss's music is clearly in the blood of Dresden musicians, and he first conducted his Sinfonia Domestica in the city in 1905, the year after he premiered the work on tour in the USA. It is a picture of a day in the life of the Strauss family, with father, mother and child all depicted in the music. Written for a huge orchestra, including four flutes, four oboes (of various types), five bassoons, five clarinets, four saxophones and eight horns. My previous experiences of the work had included a programme with a detailed synopsis which enabled me to easily follow Strauss's vividly coloured narration in the orchestra. For this performance, with a programme in German, I decided to listen without a crib and see where that took me. I have to admit that I did not follow all of the narrative, and felt that Sinaisky could have made much more of the differences in style of the various sections, the second section is, after all, marked Scherzo and the third one marked Adagio.

Despite the acoustic, a remarkable amount of detail in the orchestration came through and I was impressed by the way the orchestra could turn on a pin as the character of the music changed. But then, as one of my colleagues commented afterwards, the players could probably play the piece in their sleep without the benefit of a conductor. Needless to say, the various solo moments throughout the piece were finely done, especially the violin solo which represents Strauss's wife.

I have to confess that I am still rather conflicted about the work, not sure whether it is simply a piece of kitsch in which Strauss re-cycled lots of ideas into an incoherent whole, or a major piece. Though there were some lovely moments, and Sinaisky seemed to have a nice grasp of the overall architecture, it did not cohere into a complete work for me. I was too aware of the way that Strauss never seemed to be able to bring a passage to a close, time and again as one idea died away something new came in and we never did reach conclusion. This sense of delayed climax was most pronounced at the conclusion, something that Sinaisky seemed to relish.

The orchestra's home concert hall, in the Kulturpalast, is due to re-open next year and it will be interesting to hear them in Strauss in a good concert hall acoustic.
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