Germany Weber, Liszt, Brahms: Denis Matsuev (piano), Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann, Semperoper Dresden, 19.5.2018. (MC)
Weber – Overture to Oberon
Liszt – Piano Concerto No.2
Brahms – Symphony No.4
The Staatskapelle Dresden usual plays its concerts in a series of three having the same programme and this was the second – a morning concert. With such an attractive programme and its chief conductor Christian Thielemann on the podium it was no surprise this was a packed house. I have been attending Staatskapelle Dresden concerts for seven or so seasons and as I missed coming last year owing to illness it was satisfying to return to these familiar surroundings. Even though I know it is going to happen I always smile to myself when Thielemann jumps onto the podium and stabs the orchestra into action all in what seems a split second.
Carl Maria von Weber is inextricably connected to Dresden serving as Hofkapellmeister from 1817 until his death in 1826. Whilst residing in the city, he composed several works including his celebrated operas Der Freischütz, Euryanthe and Oberon. The opening work from the three-act opera Oberon (1826) the Overture was according to the composer written just a few days before its première in London. The opera was finally introduced in Dresden two years later. Brilliantly scored, the Oberon Overture under Thielemann was given a spellbinding performance of considerable exhilaration in a work the orchestra knows so well. Adopting a sensible rhythmic course and brisk tempo selection nothing was ever going to feel ponderous. Striking was the impressive orchestral unison and the degree of expression the Staatskapelle was able to achieve so early in the concert. With plenty of opportunity to shine, the horn section especially the principal (who opened the work) was in imperious form.
Liszt visited Dresden for the first time in 1840, staying at Hotel de Saxe, giving piano recitals which according to the local newspaper ‘make an unprecedented impression on his listeners.’ The Liszt score we heard was his Second Piano Concerto begun in 1839 in Rome with later revisions in 1849 and 1861. The first performance was given with Liszt conducting his pupil Hans Bronsart as soloist at Weimar in 1857. To highlight the symphonic nature of the score it was described in the manuscript as a ‘concerto symphonique’. No less a figure than Daniel Barenboim has expressed the view ‘Although less frequently played than the first, the second concerto is no less a masterpiece.’ With Russian soloist Denis Matsuev at the keyboard of a glorious sounding Steinway and Thielemann holding the baton I especially enjoyed the stormy feel and brisk tempo of the opening movement Adagio sostenuto assai which all combined to create remarkable drama. In my notebook I wrote a single word, ‘Phew!’ Throughout this commanding account I was immediately struck by the power and drama of the playing, it was real edge of the seat stuff. Matsuev’s pianism is remarkably strong, assured and often exhilarating. His dexterous playing never feels self-conscious and everything develops with a sense of unforced naturalness. This was a performance that certainly didn’t linger with brisk speeds that felt totally right. Thielemann and the Staatstkapelle come across as highly responsive partners and it all worked remarkably well.
Brahms worked on his Fourth Symphony in 1884/85 at the Austrian summer resort of Mürzzuschlag in the Styrian Alps. Hans von Bülow, who had conducted a rehearsal of the score enthused that the symphony was ‘stupendous, quite original, individual, and rock-like. Incomparable strength from start to finish.’ Its esteem has endured and remains for many Brahms’s most popular symphony. After I had recovered from the initial shock of the weight of orchestral sound a comforting mood of warm serenity and joy suffused the swaying opening Allegro non troppo. In such a glorious performance as this I was reminded of the verse, ‘perfectly cultivated earth. Honey of dawn, sun in bloom’ from the poem Luire (To Gleam) by Paul Éluard. Commencing with a striking horn-call, under Thielemann’s direction the slow movement felt like a dreamscape attaining beguiling heights of fantasy and grandeur as if depicting a gentle Rhine cruise through magnificent countryside. Admirable was the good humour and vigour of the hard-driven Scherzo which had a distinct festive feel as if depicting celebration of a great occasion as Thielemann took the music forward with majestic weighty strides. In the dark key of E minor the final movement a passacaglia felt like a heroic drama. Here Brahms introduces contrasts of the broadest imagination including chorale-style variations featuring horns and trombones which sounded glorious. Memorable was the lovely and moving passage for solo flute as well as the ensuing woodwind interplay while the fierce and defiant hammer-blows from timpani made a real impact.
My annual Dresden reporting trip has included concerts, recitals and operas and this Staatskapelle Dresden concert certainly ranks as a highlight.