On the face of it, this was set to be an all-German programme from an all-German company.  However, we had additions from Russia (the violinist's encore) and Rossini's William Tell Overture, paradoxically, but entertainingly, as the orchestra's party-piece finale.  Far from being an intrusion, these were welcome embellishments, clearly very much enjoyed by the audience.

Arabella Steinbacher © Peter Rigaud
Arabella Steinbacher
© Peter Rigaud

The actual opener was Beethoven's Egmont Overture, the slow introduction being an heroic and effective vehicle for the Dresden Philharmonic's rich, poised sound.  Under Michael Sanderling's sensitive direction, and with well-handled dynamics, they evoked the drama of the story, ranging from turmoil to anguish to triumph.  The knocking effect of the string passages was very compelling, as was the closing section with full orchestra swelling with excitement.  The whole pivoted on a sudden pin-drop expectant silence.  It was a fine display of teamwork, so they could have afforded to look a little less serious.

The highlight of the evening was Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, with Arabella Steinbacher's performance a joy to experience.  Composed for Mendelssohn's friend Ferdinand David, who like the composer became influential in the musical life of Leipzig, the concerto is full of memorable melodies and themes.  Tonight's interpretation demonstrated how it combines lyric ease - it simply flowed and the audience was swept along effortlessly - with virtuosity.  From the first passionate notes, Steinbacher owned the stage whilst displaying a sensitive rapport with conductor and orchestra.  There was a sense of the audience responding to her smiling disposition - we like to see our performers enjoying themselves.

There was also collective breath-holding in the crowd during the cadenza, which Steinbacher took at a stylishly unhurried pace, really making the silences count.  Some beautiful orchestral playing in the minor key led to a subtle transition by winds then strings from the Allegro into the Andante.  This movement  embodied a sense of serenity, with lovely climbing phrases which somehow felt life-affirming.  Known as a "song without words" it truly did sing its gorgeous melody.  Steinbacher brought a further joyous atmosphere to the final high-spirited movement, which fairly bounded along with a dancelike forward momentum, and was warmly applauded.  She then gave us a lovely encore in the shape of the first movement of Prokoviev's Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 115.  During a rendition that was both soulful and energetic, her violin seemed to be an extension of her body.

Unlike some of his 19th century contemporaries, who were giving literary titles to their symphonies' movements, fashioning them into tone poems or turning them into musical dramas, Brahms was determined to maintain this great classical tradition in its original incarnation.  Much of his life's work was dedicated to ensuring the longevity of this self-contained, monumental music form.  Clearly it was a task to be taken seriously and painstakingly, as he wrote just the four, with Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 best summing up his objectives.  It succeeds in employing the great formal traditions in the service of deep romantic expression.

The Dresden Philharmonic tackled the contrasts within the piece to great effect.  A boisterous section in the first movement was then relieved by a feeling of calm, to be replaced once more by a climax which called for a lengthy breath-gathering gap before launching into the second theme.  Here the cross-rhythms created texture and subtle degrees of light and shade.  The second movement had pizzicato strings painting a slow dance, followed by shimmering strings conjuring a haunting melody that felt hymn-like in its richness and grandeur.  The third and fourth movements were full of playfulness, needing a lightness of touch, drama, energy and the sensitivity to make room for the quieter, slower contrasts - with special mention going to the flute solo - before the raucous ending. 

Even more raucous, and at an astonishing gallop, was their William Tell Overture encore, let out of its starting blocks even before a smiling Sanderling was back on his podium.