Much has been said about orchestras having a particular “sound”, with countless cogitations about how this might have changed the identity of orchestras over the years. Some orchestras have sought to preserve a sound based on their geographical home, while others have their sound shaped purely by their conductors’ musical ideologies. For example, there is a fundamental aesthetic difference between the distinctively Bohemian sound of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel Ančerl and the more international sound of the London Symphony Orchestra, or the period sound of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. 

Arabella Steinbacher © Peter Rigaud
Arabella Steinbacher
© Peter Rigaud

The Dresden Philharmonic was formed in 1870 at the height of the Romantic era, and its “Dresden sound”, particularly in Romantic repertoire, is something that it has tried hard to hang on to. Nowhere was this more evident than in the opening salvo to the Dresdners’ latest UK concert, with principal conductor Michael Sanderling constructing a programme full of high spirits, high drama and heightened tensions. Characterised by warm, sumptuous strings, chorale-like woodwinds and noble brass, Sanderling’s treatment of Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe was more Wagner than Beethoven, and quite rightly so, with rich and precise playing and a delectable and well-rounded orchestral palette.

This aural luxuriance continued into the next piece, as Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra for a refined and cultured performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. Steinbacher’s natural lyricism lent itself well to this piece, for all its exuberance, and although it was a more introspective approach, it was no less satisfying. Sweeping melodic lines were carefully nurtured, supported sympathetically and attentively by Sanderling, with a fine balance struck between soloist and orchestra, and with Steinbacher’s sweetness of tone and evenness of timbre across all registers really coming to the fore. The piece was well-shaped but almost over-structured in places, with the first movement slightly more on the Moderato side and occasional moments of lethargy, but nothing was exaggerated. Steinbacher is a class act, gliding with linear guise through the momentous first movement, pushing the boundaries of the Canzonetta with melancholic beauty and serenity, and thrusting into the spirited high jinx of the Finale, both soloist and orchestra exuding precise flitting and jabbing and Steinbacher demonstrating poise and effortless virtuosity, as she did throughout. 

The Dresdners were in different territory after the interval. Sanderling was as carefully considered in his shaping of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor as he was in the rest of the programme. Delivery was sharp and cutting, though more rounded than rough, with steely strings, pointed winds and probing brass adding to the depth of texture and Sanderling putting Shostakovich’s characteristic straining of instruments to good effect as they were stretched beyond their comfort zone like taut elastic to create heightened tension. There were occasions when things felt slightly laboured, but also some fine moments of repose. Sanderling hit hard with aggressive waves of fire and bitter irony, particularly in the second and fourth movements, with fine solos from violin, winds and horn giving a suitably sardonic edginess. The Largo felt more like a meditation than a lament, but with wonderful ground swells, and the fourth movement had the Dresdners attacking with gritty determination, full of rhythmic drive with superbly blaring brass, inquisitive winds and grinding strings, and the percussion in full blaze. For all of this, the performance still lacked an element of despair, capturing some of the intent but not quite the full effect of Shostakovich’s political and artistic struggle, but it was a very fine orchestral display under a conductor who really brought out the best of the “Dresden sound”.

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