The Dresden Philharmonic brought classy Brahms, Barber and Dvořák to Manchester as part of their UK tour in a forward-looking programme of musical new beginnings. If incisive thrust was occasionally lacking, they more than compensated with elegance all evening.

Michael Sanderling © Marco Borggreve
Michael Sanderling
© Marco Borggreve

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn (or, more likely, by one of Haydn’s students) were his first foray into orchestral music without soloist, representing a turning point in his writing which would bring to fruition his long-awaited first symphony. The warmth of the wind section was apparent from the very first chords of the famous St Anthony Chorale, and the rich legato of the strings soon asserted itself too. Textures were very thick, as they largely were all evening, which, despite blurring details in places, gave a deep sense of fullness to the music. The more animated variations bordered on sluggish, but it was the piece’s overall warm sunniness which left a lasting impression.

Sarah Chang was soloist for Barber’s Violin Concerto, although the writing is such that the solo seems divided between first violins and the soloist proper. The two parties played with a wonderful mutual awareness, interweaving seamlessly, no doubt much helped by Chang’s physical stage presence. When playing she would turn and direct herself toward the strings, and when not playing she would dance along with some animation. Her impassioned, lyrical playing in the first movements was largely eclipsed by virtuosic ferocity in the third. The orchestra were again thick of texture and fairly heavy throughout. This was a great asset in the Andante, but the third movement was somewhat chaotic in its early stages before settling. The individual playing in the winds was flawless, but the work’s chamber aspects (with scoring including piano and only two horns) could have been emphasised more, perhaps by cutting some of the 60-strong string section. Moments in the first movement, particularly the winds’ dotted rhythm, were very pleasing, and overall this was a good reading, even if it did promise something more.

Michael Sanderling later built a relatively old-fashioned performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Here most of all, the strings’ elegant legato and the winds’ well-balanced warmth were of enormous benefit. Raw energy and visceral attack were seldom seen, but the sense of weight was constant. The famous Largo was well constructed from its various components to form a steady, coherent whole. The Dresdeners brought principal cor anglais player Isabel Kern specifically for the famous solo (it is written for second oboe), a decision which she justified entirely with beautiful tone, forming the backbone of the movement. Sanderling immediately passed his flowers on to her at the end of the performance.

Tempi were very free throughout, slowing considerably in parts of the first movement, such as the flute’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” motif. The performance felt very deliberate and safe at a relatively gentle pace. There were hints at more vigorous attack in the Scherzo, but here it was the trio’s graceful lilt in the woodwind which was emphasised. The finale was imposing in some huge tuttis, contrasted again with marked tempo variations for beautifully hushed softer passages. The final pages were broadly spaced and towering, leading to a stately close. The performance was rarely the edge-of-seats New World of some conductors and often felt very comfortable, but it was done with wonderful refinement.

An unhurried performance of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance, Op. 46 no. 8 followed as encore, which summarised the evening nicely: risk-free but of beautiful tone and great musicality.