A Visit from the 465-Year-Old Orchestra

United StatesUnited States  Brahms and Bruckner: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 17-18.4.2013 (BH)

Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 (1880); Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878); Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 (1884-1885)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (ed. Robert Haas) (1884-1887, rev. 1887-1890)

I hadn’t seen Christian Thielemann since his 2001 appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, leading a transcendent new production of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten—and making the sprawling tapestry seem not a minute too long. In two concerts at Carnegie Hall with the Staatskapelle Dresden, that observation still rang true.

In the first, devoted to Brahms, the Academic Festival Overture emerged creamy, balanced and well-rounded, with everything in place and nothing done to excess. But that did not prepare me for the Violin Concerto that followed, with Lisa Batiashvili in a performance of rare beauty and control. She has a huge sound (thanks to a 1715 Stradivarius), easily rising above the Dresden ensemble’s resplendence, but what most impressed was her immaculate phrasing and attention to dynamics; time after time, a sequence of notes would trail off almost into inaudibility and then stop, meticulously timed to coincide with her colleagues. At the end of the first movement, she used Ferruccio Busoni’s cadenza, a fascinating duo with softly smoldering timpani (Thomas Käppler) and again, letting every moment speak freshly. The slow movement boasted gloriously piquant winds, with musicians and conductor always on the same page. In the gypsy-drenched finale, Thielemann showed his ability for proportion, while Batiashvili played fast, accurately—and softly—with spiritually replenishing results.

I grew up listening to Bruno Walter’s version of the Fourth Symphony, which always struck me as genteel; I admired it for its beauty and reverence, as well as the (perhaps surprising, in retrospect) ensemble coordination. Thielemann’s vision was an entirely different affair—a fiery, gutsy reading that might have reminded some of being flung into Hell, or at the very least, some earthly destination that would prohibit a meditative state. If at times I might have preferred the tempi to relax just a bit, given the richness of the sound, there was no denying the audacity of Thielemann’s conception, and the radiance emanating from the Dresden players. This was Brahms not as comforter, but as thunderbolt-throwing Zeus.

On Friday, Bruckner’s mammoth Eighth Symphony appeared, rotating into view like Saturn approaching dangerously near the Earth. Managing the thousands of details packed into this masterpiece, Thielemann was often barely moving—in the first movement, encouraging wisps of clarinet and oboe to flutter about like small birds. Among the evening’s many pleasures was Thielemann’s strict observance of silence; the pauses—with the sound decaying gloriously uninterrupted in Carnegie’s acoustic—were some of the evening’s most blessed moments, such as the firm pause before the Trio in the second movement Scherzo. And in the Adagio, he gently coaxed the players—often with exquisite restraint—to create vast hallways, with doors opening to many delights such as the glorious Wagner tuba chorale near the end. The audience was noticeably quiet throughout, even during the fiery finale, with Thielemann sometimes rocking his fingertips back and forth in just three or four inches of space—though not in the final pages, when more expansive gestures took over, matching the enormity of Bruckner’s conception.

Bruce Hodges