Sanderling Leads Dresden PO in Performances of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Sanderling (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 27.5.2018. (SRT)

Tchaikovsky – ‘Polonaise’ from Eugene Onegin Op.24 & Violin Concerto in D major Op.35
Shostakovich – Symphony No.5 in D minor Op.47

The Dresden Philharmonic impressed me enormously the last time I saw them in Edinburgh, making me marvel that a band of this quality is only Dresden’s B team! Today was also very impressive in terms of the playing and orchestral sound, though interpretatively a little less stellar.

The orchestral sound is beautifully coherent and rounded, with rich, throbbing strings, glowing brass and gleaming winds. That meant that their take on Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was brilliantly coloured, even if it sounded more like Mahler with its central European tinge. The strings were particularly impressive, majestically expressive in the lament of the third movement while throwing themselves into the scherzo with lurching abandon. Even finer, though, in the first movement they managed to sound engaged while, at the same time, detached, giving that impression of the music being dead behind the eyes, expressing something deep that the words of the time (the 1930s of Stalin) dared not.

Michael Sanderling’s take on the symphony was coherent and mostly convincing, shaping the paragraphs with masterful breadth, and controlling episodes like the outburst in the middle of the first movement with convincing clarity. It felt just a little bit anonymous, however, as though he was giving us a reading of the notes that was scrupulous in its attention to detail but lacking its own narrative. His reading of the final pages, for example, seemed completely to buy the idea of the music as celebration, with very little to suggest the irony and duality that give it its power. Elsewhere he was very fine, giving a lovely swagger to the Eugene Onegin Polonaise with lots of colourful elisions and slurs that gave it the distinctive something that was missing from his Shostakovich.

They were joined for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto by the splendid Arabella Steinbacher, making her Usher Hall debut with a work that showed her at her lyrical best. Steinbacher is a flamboyant presence on the stage, cresting her bow through the air with such energy that, at one point, she even struck the first violins’ music stand. This didn’t interfere with the lyricism of her performance, though, giving us a reading of the Tchaikovsky concerto that stood out for its colour and character. I loved the rich breadth of her take on the first movement’s main theme, for example, coming before she shaded back her style to give us a second subject that was so restrained as to be almost withdrawn. Her cadenza had the feel of an operatic recitative, and even the rapid passagework had a colour all of its own, showing variety and thought rather than mere note-spinning. Occasionally, in some of the fast sections, there was a little bit of tawdry sawing, with a few notes lost in the heat of the moment, but on the whole this was a very fine piece of playing. The orchestra matched her, too, especially impressive in the Canzonetta with its chilly winds and cushion of strings. They may not have sounded particularly Russian, more like Brahms than Borodin, but in this work that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Usher Hall have just announced their Sunday Classics series for 2018-19. For full details see here.

Simon Thompson

For an interview with Annabella Steinbacher click here.

For an interview with Michael Sanderling click here.

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