"The difference between a violin and a viola is that a viola burns longer," or so Victor Borge would have it. If not so comedically intentioned, such blasphemy might well have had all the great violin-makers turning in their graves, but the reality is that violinists do form very strong bonds with their instruments, love affairs really, and some even say that it is not the violinist that chooses the violin, but the other way way round. Stradivaris and Guarneris are generally considered to be the holy grails of violins, and when the Danish-born Nikolaj Znaider swapped his Stradivarius for a Guarneri de Gesù dating from 1741, this had the added historical spice that it happens to be an instrument previously played by the legendary Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler was known not only for his violin-playing prowess, but also for his compositions, including several cadenzas. His cadenzas for Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, for example, are the most frequently performed, and the Staatskapelle Dresden, in the second of its appearances at this year's Proms under principal conductor Christian Thielemann, was joined by Znaider in a quite exceptional performance of the Beethoven concerto using Kreisler's cadenzas.

Christian Thielemann and Nikolaj Znaider with the Staatskapelle Dresden © BBC | Oliver Killig
Christian Thielemann and Nikolaj Znaider with the Staatskapelle Dresden
© BBC | Oliver Killig

Znaider's interpretation was fresh, vibrant and full of depth and nuance. His velvety tone mixed power with a hypnotic delicacy and, with the Staatskapelle in perfect support, created pianissimos that were real pianissimos and allowed the nobility of the piece to shine through. Thielemann was impressive in his control of pace, with a good ma non troppo in the opening movement and a proper Larghetto in the second, avoiding falling into the all-too-common trap of making it too lethargic. Znaider's phrasing was immaculate, and the difference in emotional impact between the exquisitely played slow movement and the zesty Rondo was striking. The first movement cadenza was masterfully navigated, and the intimacy of the hushed segue into the orchestral tutti was particularly mesmerising. Even a minor cufflink malfunction, which the good-natured Znaider took in his stride, did not detract from this captivating performance. This was a Beethoven performance to be reckoned with, and Znaider followed it up with a thoughtful encore, the Largo from Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major.

In the annals of musical history, the theme-and-variations must go down as one of the few devices that has survived each musical revolution. From Renaissance and Baroque beginnings, variations have been used by classical and romantic composers, even those progressives like Liszt who denounced traditional forms, as well as 20th-century innovators like Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Ives and Stravinsky. To mark the centenary of Max Reger's death, his most popular work, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, was given a rare outing. Composed in 1914, it takes its theme from the opening movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata in A, K.331. Mozart's movement was itself a theme with six variations, and Reger's orchestral treatment was to take the theme, add eight variations and slot in a fugue. 

The Staatskapelle revelled in this work, demonstrating to full effect the lightness of Mozart and the technical rigour of Bach, all through Reger's late-Romantic lens. Thielemann captured the variety in this piece, not just in the melodic and harmonic invention but also in the wide range of rich sound textures. The warm and majestic sound of Staatskapelle Dresden filled the hall, with punchy elements interspersed with silky strings, regal brass and lucid winds. The music felt a little heavy in places, but Thielemann skilfully propelled the orchestra forward to keep things flowing. There was clear definition in the fugue, with the orchestra building up to a glorious and triumphant climax.

The Staatskapelle Dresden has a long and distinguished history, with particularly strong links with Richard Strauss, having premièred a good number of his works. The exploits of Till Eulenspiegel, the peasant trickster from German folklore, have been the subject of many literary and musical works, including Strauss' tone poem, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks). The orchestra certainly plays Strauss as though they've got the music in their blood. Thielemann assertively and impishly coaxed all the skittish elements of the prankster's exploits out of the orchestra, with scurrying strings, wailing winds, rasping bassoons, shrieking clarinets, emphatic percussion and wonderful horn solos. It was a dynamic and rampant performance of this exciting work, full of invention and intrigue, and the Staatskapelle captured perfectly the full drama and grotesqueness of Till Eulenspiegel's demise and a brief touch of mischief and levity right at the very end.

As an encore, the Staatskapelle gave a respectful nod to one of its most distinguished former conductors, Richard Wagner, by producing a rousing rendition of the Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin.