The Staatskapelle Dresden is widely recognised as one of the best orchestras in the world, featuring in tenth place in Gramophone magazine’s 2008 article ranking the world’s 20 finest orchestras. This season the orchestra welcomes Christian Thielemann as its new main conductor, and this concert began his much anticipated Brahms cycle with his new orchestra.

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

Before the Brahms, though, came some Hans Werner Henze. His 2004 work Sebastian im Traum is based on a series of poems by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. It’s a strange work, seeming to be both clear-cut and hazy. The individual phrases and textures are very transparent and balanced, but the overall work evokes the random mental connections of a drug trip. Thielemann leads the orchestra impressively through this difficult work, with artfully sculpted phrases and an impeccable beauty of tone. The result is not only technically but also musically impressive, revealing deeper meaning behind this challenging music.

All the added percussion and keyboard instruments then vacated the stage for a performance of Brahms’ shortest symphony, his Third, in F major. Though Brahms waited until he was in his forties before completing his First Symphony, his other examples of the form followed hot on the tail of its success, with the third being premièred in 1883, just seven years later. Thielemann’s performance with the Staatskapelle Dresden was one of the best I’ve heard live, wholly natural and living for the moment, but still maintaining a sense of structure. The first movement was fast and fiery in the opening, but with pianos so delicate the audience hardly dared to breathe. Much of this symphony is like Brahms mourning the passing of a simpler, more pastoral world in the industrialization of the 19th century, and both conductor and orchestra caught this mood perfectly.

After the interval came Brahms’ First Symphony, often referred to as Beethoven’s Tenth because of its C minor tonality and its quotation from Beethoven’s own Ninth. The debt to Beethoven is clear, but what is often forgotten is how much new ground Brahms was treading in his own symphonic utterance. Brahms was showing how a symphony could still be modern in the 1870s, and was not a dead and musically stagnated genre, as Liszt and Wagner were suggesting at the time.

Thielemann brought out big dynamics from the Staatskapelle, and showed off the strings’ wide tonal palette to its full. The incredible tension of the opening was contrasted with moments of pure serenity, which seemed to be spun from gold. Like many of Beethoven’s symphonies the musical heart of this work is its finale, bringing all the ideas of the work together. This becomes clear when the horn solo appears towards the beginning of the movement, and the principal horn of the Staatskapelle made it seem like the sun bursting out from behind the clouds; a moment of pure revelation.

This was a fantastic concert, and music-making of the highest calibre. Perhaps most impressive was the effortless musicality of both orchestra and conductor and the way they worked together. Personally, I prefer Brahms to be played with little rubato, the emotional content coming through colouring, dynamics and phrasing. Though Thielemann used a lot of rubato throughout both symphonies, it was so natural and so poised that it added to rather than detracting from the music, perhaps the sign of a truly great conductor. I look forward to the rest of Brahms cycle in Dresden.

****1