The regular home of the Dresden Philharmonic, Dresden’s Kulturpalast, is currently being renovated, and as a result the orchestra is taking residence in a number of venues around the city, including the city theatre, and the renowned Frauenkirche. However, the majority of their concerts this season are taking place in the Albertinum, one of Dresden’s many art galleries. The large hall where the concerts take place is an interesting space for a concert, lacking the imposing 19th-century grandeur of most concert halls, having instead a very modern feel. It’s a more welcoming place, with a fresh atmosphere and may attract a slightly different audience to the concerts. Sadly, what is has in ambience is not matched by its acoustic. The large, high-ceilinged box is very boomy, and throughout the evening, detail was lost leaving only a wash of impressionistic sound in its wake, a great shame when the orchestra play so well.
One thing the hall does render well is dynamics, and in the orchestra’s first piece, the prelude from Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, the playing was enchanting. The opera depicts a rebellion against the Westernisation of Russia, and in the prelude Mussorgsky beautifully evokes the intangible mysticism of the Russian soul. This is not a dramatic piece, and seems to lack a strong musical narrative, but its brevity stops this being a fault, and instead creates a mood of extended meditation. The hall gave the orchestra’s wonderfully hushed pianissimos a bloom, which kept the sound luscious and blended in spite of the almost impossibly quiet dynamics.
Sadly, where drama and bite were called for, the hall masked the orchestra’s efforts. The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was less grand than it often is, and far more melancholy, offering a new perspective on this well-known work. The soloist, Tzimon Barto, was similarly subtle and his colourful delivery touched on much new ground, giving the strong and strident chords a softness and delicacy. Throughout this performance, there was a simplicity of delivery and a sensitivity to colour, in which the orchestra and soloist really worked together in this refreshing interpretation. However, there was something missing too. In the subtlety of the shading, everything was reduced to pastel tones, and the sparkle was often lost completely, emerging only in the final moments of the first and last movements. It was wonderful to see this new take on an old classic, but it needed a little more variety, and a little more life within the nostalgia.
Barto’s encore, a Chopin Nocturne, was completely enrapturing from the start. Beautifully hushed and despite the slow tempo the lines were long and unbroken. But as it went on there was too little contrast; the music has such vast differences of emotion, but Barto’s performance bordered on monotone.
After the interval came Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, his most popular orchestral work, and a real showpiece for the whole orchestra. With an enlarged string section and a vast compliment of wind players, Alexander Liebreich coaxed a vast array sounds from the Dresden Philharmonic, ranging from the big and ferocious to the wispy and mysterious. The opening was full of unease and uncertainty, the pianissimos so controlled you almost strained to hear them. But when the forte main theme finally arrived it felt like the strong attacks of the strings were unduly softened by the acoustic, and the brass swamped their efforts.
Throughout the performance the orchestra did their best to overcome the limitations of the venue, and the result achieved was still exciting and engaging. The fortes made the vast room shake, but there was also a great deal of lightness and cheek. The best moments were during the fourth movement, “Intermezzo interrotto”, where the oboist’s playful tune was thrown through the woodwind section, while the cellos’ lyrical melody was wonderfully singing, providing a total contrast.
There was, however, something missing in much of this performance, something which is often missing from performances of 20th-century music in the 21st century. The orchestra’s complete mastery of the score makes the performance sound safe, but there needs to be an element of danger for the music to have its full effect. When this work was premièred by the Boston Symphony Orchestra it was supposed to showcase their virtuosity by pushing them precariously to the limits of what they could do. But the players of the Dresden Philharmonic were very much in their comfort zone here. The danger and excitement of something on the brink of the possible wasn’t recaptured.
The Dresden Philharmonic are a really excellent orchestra and under Alexander Liebreich they didn’t just perform classic repertoire how it’s always been, but questioned the traditions and shed new light on old works. Though the orchestra tends to get forgotten next to Dresden’s more famous Staatskapelle, in reality they are up there with the best German orchestras.