Sunday, November 23, 2008 Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Reviewed by Gene Gaudette
A couple of days before Staatskapelle Dresden's matinee concert, a waggish conductor-friend told me to prepare to hear “Richard Strauss in the original tongue – Saxon!” Yes, Strauss was a Bavarian by birth, but early on in his career he established close ties to Staatskapelle Dresden that lasted for the rest of his life – and well beyond. Many of its music directors – particularly Fritz Reiner, Karl Böhm and Rudolf Kempe – were distinguished champions of Strauss's music, and the orchestra has made some of the greatest recordings of Strauss's works, most notably Böhm's recordings of many of the composer's symphonic poems and operas (for DG), and Kempe's landmark survey of the major orchestral works recorded for EMI. These recordings also document the unique sound of the 460-year-old ensemble since the early electrical era – and, yes, while that sound has changed along with instruments over the last 70 years, the distinctive string and wind timbre is remarkably similar.
Overall, Staatskapelle Dresden generated the warmest and most pleasing orchestral sound I've heard in Avery Fisher Hall in over a decade – balances favored the strings – particularly the amazingly deep and resonant sound of the cellos and double basses, though never at the expense of the clarity of the violins and violas. The trumpets and horns seemed to be in a ‘dead spot’ and a full house precluded the chance to listen from a different perspective.
Jan Vogler’s admirable recordings of solo repertoire and Haydn concertos on Berlin Classics reveal a musician who deeply respects the score but who brings a vocal-like lyricism to a wide range of repertoire. His sound was brighter than that of the Staatskapelle's cello section, which served the music quite well; Vogler was also looking not only to Fabio Luisi for cues but concertmaster Matthias Wollog and principal violist Sebastian Herberg, opting for an almost chamber-music-like intimacy.
This approach was also evident in Luisi's handling of balance and dynamics, which showed more restraint and control of Don Quixote's scoring than I have heard previously in the concert hall, but when it was required (as in the ‘Ride through the Air’ variation), the orchestra generated an overpowering – but never shrill – sound, rich in detail. Strauss gives the winds and tenor tuba-player plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff, and the Staatskapelle players brought both abundant character and virtuosity to their parts; principal oboist Bernd Schobei's prodigious fortissimo is more than a little reminiscent of Berlin Philharmonic oboist Lothar Koch.
Luisi also succeeded in evoking plenty of character in each Variation – and episode. I don't know whether to quibble with or congratulate Luisi and the superb brass player for the timbres invoked in ‘Battle with the Sheep’ – the playing was of such transparency that the music sounded less like a clever coloristic effect and more like the sudden intrusion of music from the mid-20th-century Darmstadt School. Luisi's habit of lingering over final notes of phrases and tinkering with tempos to delineate structure could be a force of habit from his career in the opera pit, but there was no treacly sentimentality to this Quixote; both he and Vogler were portraying a genteel, dignified and warm hero.
Luisi charged into Ein Heldenleben at a startlingly bracing tempo, eliciting plenty of swashbuckling virility and color; the unique timbre of the Staatskapelle's winds brought much to the portrayal of ‘The Hero's Adversaries’. ‘The Hero's Companion’ sounded as if she had as much assertive backbone as tender beauty in the hands of Wollog and Luisi, and Luisi's way with ‘The Hero's Battlefield’ revealed many details that often stay buried. The return of the opening theme sounded more victorious than usual at Luisi's hard-charging tempo, but he took a more leisurely approach to the ‘Works of Peace’ and the final ‘Release from the World’ – opting for the intimate original ending, which almost dissolves into silence leaving only the concertmaster and principal horn playing the final measure.
It should also be noted that the level of energy and engagement among the orchestra's players was among the most intense I have seen so far this season. Luisi surely has to take a good deal of credit for this, but the orchestra left this listener with the strong impression that they feel they own this repertoire. The superb quality of the performances (Strauss in the “original tongue” indeed) would certainly justify that impression.
My only minor quibble was Luisi's choice of encore: Weber's overture to “Oberon”, which was also the encore for the Friday evening concert. But what an impressive rerun – a grand-scale performance that did not sacrifice the work's Classical-era roots at the dawn of the Romantic era.