Supercharged Alpensinfonie from Staatkapelle in Dresden

GermanyGermany Wolfgang Rihm, Richard StraussAnja Harteros (soprano), Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann, (conductor), Semperoper, Dresden,  8.6.2014.


Anja Hartero  Photo:Nils Foltynowics
Anja Hartero
Photo:Nils Foltynowics

Wolfgang Rihm:Ernster Gesang for orchestra
Richard Strauss: ‘Four Last Songs’ with song ‘Malven’ (orch. Rihm 2013)
Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie for large orchestra


As soon as chief conductor Christian Thielemann bursts onto the stage there is a strong sense of being in safe hands – not safe as in standard and routine but safe as in competent and steadfast. The satisfaction increases with the Staatskapelle Dresden playing the music of Richard Strauss, and having premiered several of his orchestral works and operas in its history his music runs through the orchestra like lifeblood.

Opening the concert was Ernster Gesang (Serious Songs), an impressive work from Wolfgang Rihm, a composer who is currently in vogue with German/Austrian orchestras. Ernster Gesang was a commission in the late 1990s by the Philadelphia Orchestra for a work to establish a connection with the music of Brahms. This was a difficult time for Rihm who was grieving for the loss of his father. The work features four clarinets that were unconventionally positioned in two rows of two, where the leader and his violins would usually sit. Requiring no violins the double basses were close to the clarinets with violas in the centre, cellos on the right with the wind and percussion more or less in their usual places. Straight away the choir of clarinets, an instrument so closely associated with Brahms, began to play creating a nocturnal feel with a melancholic undertow. An appealing and accessible work by Rihm that includes much highly lyrical often beautiful, grave writing in shifting blocks of sound especially noticeable on the strings and containing a gorgeous played part for solo cor anglais.

Representing Strauss at his most generous the Four Last Songs have been classed as amongst the most the haunting and most moving music ever composed. To me this is autumnal music from the world weary Strauss suffused with nostalgia, the colours of sunset and the experience of a long, productive and on occasions a controversial life. This season I have seen many singers both male and female struggling to be heard over the rich orchestral accompaniment. Right from the opening of Frühling (Spring) renowned soprano Anja Harteros demonstrated she had ample vocal power to rise above the orchestra. Assured and looking elegant in a black haute couture off the shoulder gown the compelling Harteros was able to colour her production of the text with a range of autumnal shades together with such impeccable diction. I found September especially beautifully sung with a most haunting horn solo and opening with dark, low strings, Beim Schlafengehen (Time to sleep) including a striking extended solo from the leader was almost too moving for words. A song of aching sadness Im Abendrot (At twilight) was stunningly rendered with power and an innate control never ever having to snatch at a note. A bonus was the inclusion of the song Malven (Mallows) a score rediscovered in the estate papers of the soprano Maria Jeritza. Certainly slighter than the Four Last Songs I’m pleased to have heard Malven which was performed here in Rihm’s subtle 2013 orchestration. With such incredible sensitive orchestral support under Thiemann’s baton this was quite stunning singing from Harteros that surpassed even the most the exacting expectations.

From his beautiful villa in Garmisch, Strauss had a magnificent view of the Alpine peak the Zugspitze in the Wetterstein range from his study window. Strauss’s love of the Bavarian Alps was enduring and he never forgot his adventures climbing the Heimgarten mountain as a young man and thirty years later he illustrated his experiences in music with Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony).  It comes as no surprise that the Alpine Symphony has never been a common fixture in the concert hall gaining a reputation in some quarters as being too overblown, so the work became unfashionable. The massive forces required for performance are quite a drawback but in this Strauss anniversary year a substantial number of performances have been programmed and a few months ago in Manchester, England I attended a performance of the combined forces of the BBC Philharmonic and Hallé under Juanjo Mena. This evening conducting without a score Maestro Thielemann with the world class Staatskapelle Dresden demonstrated a masterly control of large orchestral forces delivering a supercharged performance packed with colourful incident over its Alpine landscape remarkable from the first bar to the last. Thielemann held an iron grip on the proceedings ensuring highly effective forward momentum of an often hair-raising power, overwhelming in its passionate intensity and grandeur. I felt the excitement and danger on The Ascent, and a sense of awe At the Waterfall. Remarkable too was the spectacular On the Summit commencing with a spectacular trombone fanfare theme followed by a contrasting calm episode for oboe solo over tremolo violins before the strikingly dramatic climax on reaching the mountain summit followed by a sense of exhaustion. I wonder if the Thunder and Storm, Descent section with the stark use of the organ has ever sounded so astonishingly loud and thrilling.  Amid all the excitement the quality of fine detail can often be missed. I noticed the sensitively weighted cowbell sequence, a cascade of tumbling harp and violin glissandi, a magical short section for cor anglais over the organ, such evocative birdcalls from the clarinet and flute and the yodelling oboe.

Christian Thielemann  (c) Matthias Creutziger
Christian Thielemann
(c) Matthias Creutziger

Maestro Thielemann with the world class Staatskapelle Dresden sets such a consistently high standard of performance and attending one of its concerts is a joy to treasure. More delight to come in just three days’ time with the Staatskapelle Dresden celebrating the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss at the Semperoper with a special concert of excerpts from his nine Dresden operas sung by sopranos Christine Goerke, Anja Harteros and Camilla Nylund.

Michael Cookson

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