Thielemann and Dresden Staatskapelle triumph in Berlin

GermanyGermany  Musikfest Berlin 2011 – Busoni, Pfitzner, Brahms: Dresden Staatskapelle / Christian Thielemann (conductor), Tzimon Barto (piano), Philharmonie, Berlin, 12.9.2011. (MC)

Ferruccio BusoniSymphonic Nocturne for orchestra, Op. 43 (1912/14)
Hans PfitznerConcerto for piano and orchestra in E flat major, Op. 31 (1922)
Johannes BrahmsSymphony No. 1 C minor, Op. 68 (1862/77)

Founded in 1548 the Dresden Staatskapelle is one of the world’s oldest and most highly regarded orchestras. As tonight’s concert at the Berlin Philharmonie demonstrated, the Dresden orchestra under their chief conductor-elect Christian Thielemann are clearly intent on maintaining the tradition of excellence. In terms of confidence and personality one would think that maestro Thielemann had been in post for years, such is his charismatic effect on the players. Thielemann was in total control of this wonderful orchestra who clearly responded to his strong leadership.

What an absorbing and wonderfully constructed concert programme this was of both familiar and unfamiliar late-Romantic music that maintained a thread of German connections. Master composer Brahms was German born and bred. Pfitzner was born in Moscow and Busoni in Tuscany, but at various times both settled in Berlin. In fact Busoni was buried in the Friedenau district of Berlin.

Completed in 1912/14 Busoni’s Symphonic Nocturne for orchestra was intended as a study for the opera Doctor Faust ,his magnum opus. Considered a radical work at the time of composition, the score seemed to quickly fall into relative obscurity. To illustrate this Wilhelm Furtwängler during his tenure as principal conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic (1922-1954) never performed the Symphonic Nocturne and conducted only one Busoni score during that period. Given the finest advocacy by Thielemann and his Dresden players, the Symphonic Nocturne was revealed as a beautifully crafted nocturnal tone painting of shadowy and mysterious woodland glades. I was struck by the exquisite playing from the Dresden strings matched by the sensitively played horns. Thielemann clearly admires Busoni’s Nocturne and took the audience by surprise by stating that they were going to repeat the score and played it again.

During the 1920s/30s Pfitzner’s scores were regularly found on concert programmes. Pfitzner’s difficult relationship with the National Socialist regime in Germany ensured diminished opportunities for performances of his music. After the war and his death in 1949 his music never really received the same attention again. Pfitzner composed his Concerto for piano and orchestra in E flat major in 1922, a product of his time teaching at the Prussian Academy in Berlin. Furtwängler who frequently programmed Pfitzner scores conducted the E flat major Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic with Walter Gieseking as soloist at the Alte Philharmonie in 1923 and in 1934.

Designed in four continuous movements Pfitzner’s E flat major Concerto was played by Florida born pianist Tzimon Barto who proved a popular choice with the audience. Opening in a virtuosic style with significant vigour rather in the manner of Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the writing soon developed a certain reserve eschewing frothy showmanship. Nevertheless this is love music, cautious – even poignant – but so wanting to be passionate. Maybe Pfitzner is depicting a love affair that could not be. I loved the mellifluous oboe that wept a sensitive lament. High-spirited, the second movement Scherzo pleaded to be victorious yet the writing ensured that the soloist’s emotions were kept tightly in check. A plaintive horn joined by woodwind against a soft cushioning of strings opened the slow movement. Barto entered tentatively with an ever so gentle melody creating a safe and comforting atmosphere where everything is at peace with the world. In the exuberant Finale the soloist was joined by the full orchestra for an uplifting climax, but it was not long before the rather reticent and somewhat self conscious mood returned. Thielemann brought the score to a rousing climax garnering an enthusiastic audience reaction. In response Tzimon Barto gave a solo Schumann piece as an encore. Although an appealing score, one notices the lack of melodic memorability and the stop/start manner of Pfitzner’s writing, which probably accounts for the concerto’s failure to establish a firm place in the repertoire.

Brahms was in his forties and at the height of his maturity when his Symphony No. 1 in C minor was produced, although the gestation period had been a long one. It seems he had been making initial sketches for the score over twenty years earlier. Brahms was aware that by writing symphonies he was entering into the territory ruled by Beethoven. Brahms had in fact written to Hermann Levi that he could “feel the presence of Beethoven marching behind him.” Hans von Bülow went so far as to describe the C minor Symphony as “Beethoven’s Tenth.” Conducting without a score maestro Thielemann just exuded confidence, and how magnificently his Dresden players responded! Immediately I was convinced by the solemn and heavy pounding of the threatening drums that open the first movement Un poco sostenuto – Allegro. A sublime feature was the beautiful playing of the rising oboe motif followed by flute and cellos.

Throughout an assured Thielemann successfully provided generous quantities of both beauty and menace. I was struck by the burnished autumnal feel of the countryside to the E major Andante sostenuto movement. One could imagine venturing into an eerily tranquil and shadowy forest whilst anticipating the ominous onset of stormy weather. Superb solo passages from the principal oboe and leader provided just the right weight and focus. Heavenly lyrical melodies abounded in the short Un poco allegretto e grazioso right from the swaying opening measures in a manner reminiscent of Mendelssohn. Thielemann and his Dresden players provided fresh and engaging music evocative of the great outdoors like a cool Tyrolean breeze and early morning dew over a backdrop of wonderful Alpine scenery.

Thielemann directed a sense of intense activity in the closing movement Adagio – Allegro non troppo ma con brio as if lying on a verdant grassy bank watching the tones and shapes of a changing sky. Razor sharp and incisive strings opened the Finale and the agitated passage for pizzicato strings sent a shock of electricity through the audience such was the effect. After what seemed like a long pause the jubilant big tune entered like a sunburst. Impressively the Dresden players generated great reserves of power for the majestic Coda without losing any sense of control. I doubt I will hear a more exciting performance of the Brahms C minor Symphony than this from Dresden Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann; the concert was a triumph.

Michael Cookson