The Dresden Philharmonic’s three-concert Beethoven series at Cadogan Hall kicked off on Thursday night with the composer at his most heaven-storming. Allying the revolutionary heroism of the Fidelio Overture with the crushing vehemence of the C minor Piano Concerto and Fifth Symphony, this was a concert that promised shattering emotional journeys and orchestral bravura. However, what we got was something rather different: pared-back, period-inspired renditions of each of these heavyweights, with absolutely crystal-clear string sound and incisive attacks, as well as overwhelming force in louder music. This never really felt like ‘interpretation’ per se, rather ‘presentation’ of the notes, just the notes, and nothing but the notes. This approach certainly has its advantages in terms of clarity of texture, but neither Sanderling nor soloist Freddy Kempf took any major risks whatsoever with this music, and Beethoven is surely not a composer for the risk-averse.

Michael Sanderling © Marco Borggreve
Michael Sanderling
© Marco Borggreve

Fidelio’s overture has a backstory only marginally less dramatic than the opera itself, Beethoven having repeatedly outdone himself with the thrilling Leonore overtures before arriving at this rather simpler affair. It’s much more effective as part of the full opera than as a concert work, with a great deal of chord-based padding and excitement that never really scales the heights of true drama. Jitters seemed to affect the orchestra at the opening, with extremely ragged ensemble and some fluffed entries; however, these were soon swept aside and what came through was the marvellous blend of sound the Dresdeners and Sanderling achieve. The strings played with absolutely no vibrato, and focused instead on spot-on intonation and incisive articulation, with an admirable lightness of touch in quick passages that kept the bass at the forefront and let the winds blend effortlessly. Some credit for this must go to the lovely acoustic of Cadogan Hall which, though it gives timpanists sometimes unwarranted moments in the spotlight, has both immediacy and depth, perfect for this kind of music as well as the smaller ensembles to which it normally plays host.

C minor is the key associated with Beethoven’s most profoundly searching, striving music, and the Third Piano Concerto fits well into this mould. Based loosely on Mozart’s 24th, its lengthy orchestral introduction sets the scene before the piano’s angry scales throw the two parties into all-out warfare, the keyboard fighting for prominence against orchestration that transcends mere accompaniment. Freddy Kempf’s approach was, as I mentioned, a little lighter than all the revolutionary ardour we normally expect in this music, favouring a much more crystalline, Mozartean touch. This was wholly in keeping with Sanderling’s approach, which emphasised the myriad counterpoints that normally go unheard deep in the orchestral blend. With inch-perfect passagework, Kempf showed every single line even in the most imposingly semiquaver-scorched reaches of the piano part, including Beethoven’s cadenza, so often a pre-Romantic slugging match between pianist and instrument, felt at times more like an operatic ensemble. Of course, too much sweetness and light would be inappropriate, and both Kempf and the orchestra could turn on the heroics as necessary, with the Dresden winds in particular impressively robust in the recapitulation.

The slow movement’s Mozartean leanings were fully on display, the ensemble enjoying rather than wallowing in the beauty of the orchestration and harmony, although solos from flute and bassoon were gorgeous. Kempf’s eyes spent more time on Sanderling than the keyboard, and the jocose rondo finale came to feel more sinfonia concertante than piano concerto, equal weight given to the orchestra’s many details as to the fiendish virtuosity of the piano part.

Unfortunately, ‘presentation’ will never be good enough for a warhorse like the Fifth Symphony. It will never be good enough just to give people what they have heard before. Sanderling’s instruction of no vibrato for a modern orchestra is increasingly common these days; it clarifies the texture and gives the strings a very precise attack, but long loud notes without colour are, frankly, ugly and too often these were what we got. Particularly in the last movement, bombastic in its force, long string phrases felt shapeless and lacking in lustre.

Most conductors, particularly those who work with period ensembles, find a way round this through micro-management of phrasing, treating every line as important, and expressive use of tempo. Unfortunately, imitating the worst of the early period instrument movement, this was largely a one-tempo race; even where, in the first movement, the more lyrical phrases were detached, as the score indicates, there was no give-and-take, no sense of song or vocality. It felt rather businesslike, even where, as in the weighty scherzo, the orchestra’s exuberance was more effective. It’s a shame that this dogmatic approach spoilt the end of the concert for me, because what I had heard before showed real promise and musicality from the Dresden Phil and Sanderling.