Der Sir”, they used to call him. The death of Sir Colin Davis has been a strikingly international event, and New York has been no exception. Over at Lincoln Center, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic opened their latest subscription run with “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a joint tribute to the British conductor and the people of Boston (another of Sir Colin’s haunts). Here, Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden have dedicated their two concerts this week to the memory of “Der Sir”, who was a very productive collaborator with this orchestra since the early 1980s, and remains its only conductor laureate.

Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden © Matthias Creutziger
Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden
© Matthias Creutziger

Der Sir”, though, is not responsible for the buzz emanating from Dresden right now. For that, we have to look to the Staatskapelle’s brand new principal conductor: Der Thielemann, if you will. He has already made waves politically, slotting in when Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker departed the Salzburg Easter Festival. Yet these touring programmes of Brahms and Bruckner are surely designed to show off a new musical relationship between a conductor all too easily associated with rather conservative Teutonic values – fairly or not – and an orchestra inoculated for decades from any internationalisation of its sound by the Iron Curtain.

One might expect old-school, comfortable Brahms, then, but that was very far from what this partnership produced in this first of two concerts at Carnegie: an impetuous, brutal, and nihilistic Fourth Symphony.

If you can tear into the opening movement’s sighing introductory thirds, Thielemann did here. And if you think you can already hear the unceasing catastrophic logic of this symphony’s final movement in the exposition of its first, Thielemann made it so. This was Brahms completely on the edge, occasionally on the verge of falling apart as thickness of texture collapsed in on itself, but otherwise a reading that took what most commentators call Brahms’ “autumnal” hues of yellows and oranges and turned them into a sizzling fireball. Even at generally quick tempi Brahms’ concise phrases had time to breathe, and even to linger: slower moments were stretched out, fallen into with precipitous tempo changes as the Staatskapelle’s growling sound enveloped an insistent formal drama. Thielemann barely needed Brahms’ inferno of a coda, for his structural point had already been made, but he hurtled into it by accelerating far earlier than most conductors would. Indeed, that snorting drive for cadential release almost peaked too early, but what started out sounding merely hard-driven turned into a vicious final paragraph at once foreboding and dismissive.

The second movement also left restraint aside, but Thielemann resisted the temptation to drag it out. Deliberate phrasing here emphasised thematic links to the first and fourth movements through detached, falling pairs of notes, while the cosseting second theme sounded less like its usual lullaby than an outpouring, an overflowing of emotion for which triumph and even dignity were impossible. One or two of Thielemann’s tempo changes bordered on cod-Furtwänglerian pastiche, but on the whole his free approach worked well. So too in Brahms’ only symphonic scherzo, which had something of the courageous, foolish hero about it despite some rather lethargic triangle playing – a weird but effective transplant of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel into a resolutely un-Straussian symphony.

But this is not a triumphant, heroic symphony in Beethoven’s vein, nor even a tragic one. Even if the scherzo’s audacious protagonist plunges to his death, Brahms focuses less on the man than on the fall itself, on the zealous rationality of it all. Felix Weingartner called this fourth movement a “veritable orgy of destruction”, as if Brahms were setting the Beethovenian symphony alight. Thielemann underscored this bleakness in a feral finale, in which nothing seemed sacred and nothing comforted, not even that winding flute line at its heart. The Staatskapelle’s very tone seemed to engulf everything in its path, as its players brutally cast Brahms’ variations aside in shades of darkening black. For Eduard Hanslick, this passacaglia was a “dark well” in which “the longer we look into it, the more brightly the stars shine back”. In this mad and quite brilliant performance, there was only oblivion.

The rest of the programme was taken up by the Academic Festival Overture and the Violin Concerto. Ingeniously constructed from a series of student drinking songs, the overture was rather more academic than it might have been, and was certainly too sober, but it benefited from Thielemann’s sure architectural hand. The Violin Concerto was equally no-nonsense, from both orchestra and soloist alike. Lisa Batiashvili’s phrasing and intonation were both particularly fine, and her birdlike tone proved especially beautiful in a conventional sense in the slow movement. She and Thielemann conjured an intense reading full of neat touches and details, but one that remained rather benign.

The encore, the Act III Prelude to Lohengrin, was full of air, and looked forward to the next programme: Bruckner’s most Wagnerian symphony, the Eighth.

****1