Lively Characterful Playing from NDR Symphony Orchestra

GermanyGermany  Schumann, Brahms: NDR Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Hengelbrock (conductor), Dresden Music Festival 2012, Semper Opera House, Dresden, Germany 17.5.2012 (MC)

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’ (1850)
Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1876)

NDR Sinfonieorchester, photo Marcus Krueger

With the exception of the Bavarian RSO, radio bands rarely figure on lists of the world’s top orchestras. They tend to lack the more elevated reputation of many of their privately funded contemporaries and can often be associated with performing lighter music. On the evidence of this morning concert at Dresden’s Semper Opera House the excellent North German Radio Symphony Orchestra (NDR Sinfonieorchester) certainly deserves to be included on these esteemed lists.

Many music lovers will recall the acclaimed cycles of Beethoven; Brahms and Bruckner symphonies that the Hamburg based North German RSO recorded with the late Günter Wand. From the 2011/12 season Thomas Hengelbrock became principal conductor of the North German RSO and at this concert from the Dresden Music Festival the partnership provided notable performances of two staples of the Austro/German symphonic repertoire. Unless I missed something it was only when I received my programme that I discovered that the advertised William Tell overture wasn’t being played and no official reason was given. Although the William Tell opera is set in Austrian-occupied Switzerland I suspect that the overture didn’t fit with the festival ‘Heart of Europe’ theme identifying music from the Vienna, Budapest and Prague triangle. I admit to being rather peeved that it had been decided not to perform this substantial and much loved Rossini score. After all, concerts have certainly been getting shorter in recent years with many, including this one, containing less than an hour and half of music.

Schumann’s five movement Symphony No. 3 in E flat major ‘Rhenish’ from 1850 was composed in one of the final happy periods in the composer’s troubled life. For Schumann the score is said to mirror the sights and sounds of Rhineland life. The fourth movement is it seems a depiction of Cologne Cathedral, an edifice that made a significant impression on Schumann when he saw it shortly after its completion. I felt strongly that the performance from Hengelbrock and the North German RSO was in total sympathy with Schumann’s contrasting moods and lyrical intensity. In the first movement, with its wild and furious opening, the music could have represented a ship navigating stormy waters looking for a safe harbour. Hengelbrock certainly brought out the happy and carefree carnival-like character of the second movement marked Sehr mäßig. Affectionately played, the relaxed interpretation of the third movement intermezzo felt like a love letter in music to Clara Schumann after completing ten years of marriage. In the fourth movement Feierlich the strong current of vital energy was an apt reflection of the solemn magnificence of the Cologne Cathedral. Here Hengelbrock obtained a warm wall of resonating string sound, especially from the rich and weighty low strings, and the resonant brass sounded mightily expressive too. I experienced a fresh open-air quality to the Finale of swiftly shifting tempi as I often do in the very finest performances. Played with a striking sense of purpose Hengelbrock delivered an astutely judged account of the symphony with weight and precision all expertly blended together with remarkable control.

With over twenty years for its gestation Brahms was forty-two when his Symphony No. 1 in C minor was introduced, a surprisingly late age for someone who had been writing high quality music for many years. This greatly anticipated score was dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” by the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow. Hengelbrock and the North German RSO gave a gripping and compelling performance of the Brahms First Symphony. This was a reading of strong dramatic contrasts right from the threatening timpani pounds that open the serious first movement Hengelbrock provided generous quantities of beauty and menace. There was a burnished autumnal feel to the Andante sostenuto movement. Warm and tender the high strings swooned like I’ve not heard before in this piece. Glorious lyrical melodies abounded in the short Un poco allegretto e grazioso. The playing had a freshness of the great outdoors, evocative of cool early morning dew over a backdrop of breathtaking Alpine scenery. In the finale the new summery chorale-like theme was simply glorious. At times it felt as if the intensity and sheer weight of sound was pushing me back in the seat.

Thomas Hengelbrock, photo Gunter Gluecklich

In the same opera house the previous evening Daniel Barenboim had conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a truly remarkable performance of Mozart’s final three symphonies. It was interesting to compare the poised Vienna orchestra with their straight backed seating posture against the far freer style of the Hamburg orchestra with the string players tending to sway from the waist to assist them to achieve additional expression. Thomas Hengelbrock who preferred to stand on the stage without a podium and his North German RSO delivered stunning performances of the Schumann and Brahms symphonies in which every bar felt alive and characterful. I especially admired the Hamburg orchestra’s impeccable intonation and unity also their warm and gloriously expressive tone. This year’s well attended Dresden Music Festival is certainly thrilling audiences. Many of the concerts are being held at the Semper Opera House which has excellent acoustics making this an excellent place to come and hear orchestral music as well as opera.

Michael Cookson