The Dresden Philharmonic’s mini-tour of the UK saw the venerable German orchestra join forces with a Welsh choir and solo quartet for Beethoven’s first and last symphonies in both the English and Welsh capitals. Tonight in Cardiff they showed what a classy ensemble they are, while the Cardiff Ardwyn Singers and Cardiff Polyphonic Choir mustered plenty of fireworks of their own.

Michael Sanderling © Marco Borggreve
Michael Sanderling
© Marco Borggreve

The mysterious opening chords of the C major symphony of 1800, starting with that famously discordant leading note, immediately demonstrated the colourful string and woodwind sounds of the orchestra. For the first half only, trumpets and timpani played on natural and manual instruments respectively, giving the sound a brighter, sharper edge than that of modern instruments. The antiphonally-seated strings played with consummate lightness of touch from top to bottom, further aiding the graceful phrasing and clear textures even at the relatively steady tempi set by Chief Conductor Michael Sanderling in the first two movements.

There was a great deal to admire in the elegance of the woodwind and string dialogues in the third movement’s trio before the evening’s energy stepped up several gears in the finale. The music here fizzed along with no compromise in clarity of texture, casting a bright light onto the high-definition sound. Few in the hall would have come chiefly to hear the first symphony, but it is hard to imagine it done better.

The second half saw the orchestra return with an extra desk of strings, doubled woodwind and modern trumpets and timpani, plus a sizeable choral force above. Missing from the stage were only the soloists and three percussionists, who appeared after the scherzo, and a conductor’s baton for Michael Sanderling, whose demonstrative hand gestures offered more than adequate guidance to his forces all evening.

It was difficult not to hear shades of Bruckner in the dark mystery and occasional fury of the opening half of the Ninth Symphony, where Sanderling’s steady tempi boldly highlighted the dark tension of the music. The first movement felt noticeably more epic in outlook than usually heard in its unhurried, monolithic paragraphs, and the flighty Scherzo had some wonderfully bracing moments of terror in the battery of sound pounding out from the timpani and brass. After a pleasingly airy pause, the slow movement then unfolded with utmost redemptive tenderness. Sanderling’s fluidity of beat and the orchestra’s rich tone colour, built upwards from a fine bass section (mostly playing 5-stringed instruments), made this an unfussy emotional heart of the piece.

To this point, it had been difficult to escape thoughts of Bruckner’s Ninth of the same key. If the third movement had come close to touching the heavens, the finale dragged the music back to Earth in the most brilliantly human way. From the pianissimo first Ode to Joy theme in the lower strings to its last proclamation from full orchestra and choir via Thomas Faulkner’s arresting interjection and call to arms, the sense of joy was inescapable. Sanderling’s tempi suddenly picked up to a brisk march, and the massed choirs threw their voices out into the hall with all the raw, naked enthusiasm the work can demand. The tenors and basses, coming over as a greatly multiplied Welsh male voice choir, deserve special credit for their efforts. The result was a huge wall of sound, occasionally rough-edged but born of the most joyful intent.

Alexander James Edwards gave one of the liveliest and energetic Turkish marches I have heard with apparently boundless energy, and soprano Elin Pritchard and mezzo Samantha Price both sang with admirably warm colour The unusual combination of esteemed German orchestra and Welsh choir, singing with admirable German diction, proved to be a fascinating and effective move. The final pages raced away like a dazzling organ recessional, charging almost without stumble to a thrilling finish.