Simone Young and the Dresdner Philharmonie make a formidable partnership. The orchestra play with such a wonderful sound, especially in the wind and brass sections, and the range of colours they conjure is incredible. And Young clearly revels in the orchestra’s technical facility, but still always bringing something extra, and never taking away from what the orchestra can do for themselves. You so often see conductors working hard on a forte, but Young seems to just invite them into one, and they are more than happy to oblige with rapturous orchestral sound.

Dresdner Philharmonie © Marco Borggreve
Dresdner Philharmonie
© Marco Borggreve

Clarinettist/composer Jörg Widmann got the concert started with a thrilling performance of his own Elegie for clarinet and orchestra. This is really a 20-minute study in orchestral colour, like a Kandinsky painting in sound, portraying nothing, expressing everything. Its eschewing of tonal language makes the brief flirtations with traditional harmonies all the more poignant, with one specific moment seeming to lead to a recognisable cadence, only to hang achingly one chord away from resolution. The clarinet writing is virtuosic but never gratuitously so. This is music which is truly contemporary, but which speaks to the heart as well as to the head.

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony is one of his least performed. It’s a monumental work, incredibly brutal for a piece in A major, which is more often associated with chamber music and light-hearted symphonic works such as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or Mendelssohn’s “Italian”.

Young’s performance was full of detail, but never lost that all-important golden thread throughout the work’s 60 minutes. The opening rhythm in the violins was almost unbearably still, containing the mixture of hope for a radiant A major and fear of the inevitable reality. This pulsating rhythm continues incessantly through much of the first movement, and the Dresdner Philharmonie never ebbed in their precision and attention to detail. The fortes were strident rather than forced and echoed through the cavernous reaches of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche, softening and mixing the brass and string sounds. The slow movement flowed well with excellent wind solos and a blended, organ-like sound, so ideal in this music. There were times where I wanted more pianissimos here; the great thing about the ringing church acoustic is that you hear everything, which means that extreme softness can have an incredibly magical effect – a trick missed. Young and the orchestra really brought out the dance character of the scherzo, filling the movement with a demonic energy.

Most impressive was the finale, where Young’s incredible attention to detail really came to the fore. There was so much colour here, and endlessly spun phrases, but it was the textural detail that was most striking. The inner string parts, so often obliterated in performances of Bruckner’s somewhat densely orchestrated symphonies, were allowed to sing, sometimes whole melodies and countermelodies, sometimes the odd significant note, but it leant a whole new dimension to the performance.

Performing Bruckner in the Kreuzkirche is in many ways ideal. The orchestra is like the organ of the composer’s dreams and hearing it in such a large acoustic gives a very different impression to the concert hall. However, performing in such a space requires an orchestra of the highest calibre with a conductor of equal standing. But both Young and the Philharmonie were more than equal to the task.