Lucerne Festival (6): Thielemann and the Dresdners Made for Each Other

09/09/2015

 Lucerne Festival, Beethoven, Bruckner:  Dresdner Staatskapelle,  Yefim Bronfman (piano), Christian Thielemann (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL)  8.9.2015 (JR)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Bruckner:  Symphony No. 6

Thielemann should have absolutely no regrets at “losing” (temporarily, perhaps) the Berlin Philharmonic. His (fairly) new orchestra, the Sächsische (Saxon) Staatskapelle Dresden, to give it its full name, is a truly venerable and splendid ensemble and nowadays can stand alongside their illustrious neighbours up the Autobahn in Berlin. They may not have such a characteristic sound but all sections thoroughly impress. Thielemann and the Dresdners are simply made for each other. (On the downside, I did only count a handful of women in the orchestra, they are dangerously close to competing with the Viennese on that score).

The first half of this concert was given over to Beethoven’s Third piano concerto; with Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard, the powerful and virtuoso passages as well as its fluid and delicate parts were in the very best of hands and came over crystal-clear. Bronfman has recorded this concerto (and all the others) with David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra to great acclaim; I felt that this performance with Thielemann had added ingredients, a conductor who brought real life and more warmth to the accompaniment. Thielemann’s incisive conducting was as immaculate as his appearance: he crouches to quiet the orchestra, and leans back Carlos-Kleiber-style to allow the music to breathe, leans forward to deliver incisive attack.

Bronfman’s playing was delightful, expertly-judged Beethoven without mannerism or affectation, just perfect. At the end Thielemann almost refused to take any bows at all, leaving the stage so that Bronfman, properly, could receive the vocal accolades.

Bruckner’s Sixth is a bold choice of work (it did not quite manage to fill the hall), sitting in between the “easier” early symphonies Nos. 3, 4 and 5 and the mature and more impressive Nos. 7, 8 and unfinished 9. (I shall ignore, for these purposes, symphony numbers 0, 00, 1 and 2). Bruckner’s Sixth was described by the composer as “meine keckste Sechste”, his perkiest.  Bruckner did not revise it (Mahler did, but only after Bruckner’s death), one or two short bars do cry out for an editor’s knife; Bruckner never heard it (nor his Fifth symphony) performed as a whole in public, though the Vienna Philharmonic included the inner movements in a concert programme and he heard the same orchestra play the whole work at a reading.

Musicologist and Brucknerian Robert Simpson felt that the symphony, though not often performed and sometimes thought of as the “ugly duckling” of Bruckner’s symphonies, nonetheless made an immediate impression. Thielemann has apparently remarked that the audience should rediscover slowness in all Bruckner’s symphonies, albeit with incredible fire within, and these were indeed hallmarks of his interpretation.

Conducting without a score, Thielemann and his remarkable orchestra gave a cogent and inspired performance.  When thrilling conclusions came, such as at the end of the first and last movements, they were suitably blazing; the Dresdners have an exceptionally fine brass section and Thielemann thankfully never tempered the decibels.

In the Adagio, music of great composure, the strings were exemplary; Thielemann did not veer into sentimentality. Yes, it was slow, but wholly in line with the conductor’s vision.

The perky Scherzo was most successful, with its typical Brucknerian pattern of rhythmic outer passages with uplifting brass fanfares and a gentle pizzicato string passage in between.

The concert gave a welcome opportunity to hear a very fine performance of a lesser-played and enigmatic Bruckner symphony. It needs a great performance to bring out its subtleties and its majesty and on this occasion it certainly received one; this was probably my most enjoyable concert of the year so far.

Thielemann leapt onto the podium at the end to wallow in the vehement cheering.

John Rhodes

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