Steinbacher Captivates and Janowski Impresses In Dresden’s Frauenkirche

DruckGermanyGermany Dresden Music Festival 2016 – Vaughan Williams, Chausson, Bruckner: Arabella Steinbacher (violin), WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Marek Janowski – Frauenkirche, Dresden, 20.5.2016 (MC)

Marek Janowski, photo Reinhold Möller
Marek Janowski (c) Reinhold Möller

Vaughan Williams, ‘The Lark Ascending’ rhapsody for violin and orchestra (1914, orchestrated 1920)

Chausson, ‘Poème’ for violin and orchestra (1896)

Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Nowak Edition (1951)

My experience of both conductor Marek Janowski and violin soloist Arabella Steinbacher drew me to this concert the last of my annual Dresden reporting trip. I have attended a couple of impressive Berlin concerts conducted by Janowski with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. As a former principal conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, Janowski was influential in Dresden musical life for the years 2001/04. A regular visitor to the recording studio Steinbacher has recorded what I believe to be the greatest account in the catalogue of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 on the Orfeo label. Only two days earlier also at the magnificent Frauenkirche I attended a concert with David Garrett as soloist where I sensed the concert had become more about him than the music. Here the balance had altered and with Janowski and Steinbacher on stage it was all about the music.

During an interview with Steinbacher on the morning of the concert she explained that Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending is not played too often in Germany. It’s an entirely different picture in the U.K. where this work has an enduring popularity, once again reaching number one in the 2016 ‘Classic FM Hall of Fame’. It’s the seventh time it has topped the chart and been described as the nation’s best loved piece of classical music. Though not natural bedfellows, I wondered how many times The Lark Ascending has been programmed with Bruckner on a concert programme but I’m glad it was.

At the time of its composition it ‘Lark Ascending’ certainly had strong associations with bucolic English landscapes providing a stark contrast from the world events in the months leading up to the First World War in 1914. Vaughan Williams’s inspiration was a George Meredith 122 line poem of the same name about the skylark. Selected lines from Meredith’s poem which the composer had inscribed on the published score, often contained in concert programmes, were absent in those for this concert. The score’s beauty and affecting mood were as powerful as ever in this glorious performance of distinct maturity from Steinbacher. Playing with rapt assurance the lyrical soaring and floating violin melody ascended high from the violin’s upper register. For anyone wanting a magnificent account of The Lark Ascending I don’t think anyone has bettered the classic recording by Hugh Bean with New Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult on EMI.

Next came a highly perfumed Romantic violin showpiece from the end of the nineteenth century, Chausson’s Poème. The Parisian composer’s best known work, he wrote the score for violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe who actually wanted a violin concerto. Evocative of warm Mediterranean sunshine there was a flood of poetic feeling in Steinbacher’s focused and captivating playing. Throughout I was struck by the delicious tone Steinbacher produced from her violin, the ‘Booth’ Stradivarius (1716). With the audience captivated by her performance Steinbacher’s encore continued the Ysaÿe connection playing the first movement ‘Obsession’ from the virtuoso’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 ‘Jacques Thibaud’. Here Ysaÿe quotes directly from the prelude from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin.

After the interval Maestro Janowski conducted a performance of Bruckner’s final work, his unfinished Ninth Symphony, using his favoured Nowak Edition. Torment and anguish plagued Bruckner whilst writing this  symphony, a score he intended to dedicate to God but one he never lived to complete. Despite the physical and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years his breath-taking writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable.

Undaunted by the scale of work, Janowski and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln tackled Bruckner’s awesome structures with resilience and assurance conveying a rich orchestral sonority. Conducting without a score Janowski’s spacious dynamics were masterful culminating in incandescent climaxes of remarkable potency. Although maintained throughout, this weight and power was especially noticeable in the opening movement when at a couple of points I felt the surging orchestral force pushing me back into the bench seat. It was remarkable how Janowski in this highly challenging space was able to skilfully employ the conspicuous echo for best acoustical effectiveness. Also pleasing was the amount of fine detail which was revealed, especially in the woodwind – a feature so often clouded on recordings. Forming such an integral part of the orchestra it felt as if the blazing brass, including four Wagner tubas, had been dipped in liquid gold. The string section was also playing to an elevated standard rarely encountered.

Characterised by the harrowing emotion of the Adagio the effect of the string playing, in spite of some sound quality lost in the space of the famous dome, was at times spine tingling. I’ve never heard a finer performance of Bruckner 9, undoubtedly one that will live long in the memory.

Michael Cookson