The Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann brought their mini “Salzburg Easter Festival” to Tokyo in November for four performances in Suntory Hall as part of the Hall’s 30th anniversary celebrations – two performances of Das Rheingold with nearly full staging, and two purely orchestral concerts.

Kit Armstrong © Jason Alden
Kit Armstrong
© Jason Alden

Normally, for a concert consisting of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and Strauss’ colossal, hypersonic Alpine Symphony, it is the latter that leaves the greater impression. Not so at the Dresdners’ concert on Tuesday. 24-year-old pianist (and composer and math wiz) Kit Armstrong, a last-minute replacement for Yefim Bronfmann who had to withdraw for medical reasons, turned in a performance that combined boldness with lyricism, self-assurance with elegance. His performance had everything one could want in this concerto: refined phrasing, rock-solid rhythm, use of the full dynamic range (the end of the slow movement was pure magic), clarity, and a warmly cultured sound that perfectly complemented the orchestral support behind him. For an encore, he offered the Minuet from Bach’s Partita no. 1 in B flat major, a little piece technically so simple a third-year student could play it, but I venture to say that not one pianist in a thousand could have brought to it the pearly touch, wealth of nuances and imagination Armstrong did.

The Alpine Symphony is one of the most remarkable works ever created to depict nature in sound. Every aspect of the ascent and descent of an Alpine peak, covering a time span of 24 hours, is portrayed. Lasting nearly an hour, it shows Strauss at the peak of his orchestrative powers. It requires the largest and most varied forces he ever used for a purely orchestral work, including such exotica as an organ, a thunder sheet, wind machine, cowbells, heckelphone, and four Wagner tubas. Virtuosity is demanded from every player, making it the ultimate orchestral showpiece.

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

Everything that Armstrong did right in the concerto Thielemann did wrong in the Alpine Symphony, right from the beginning. The score is marked pianissimo for the opening pages, but Thielemann came crashing in at least mezzo-forte, a dynamic level he sustained throughout the entire opening section (“Night”), thus ruining any sense of pre-dawn darkness or growth toward sunrise. In fact, there were few moments in the score where the orchestra played a true pianissimo, while some of the loudest passages became mere sonic mush. Lyrical melodic lines were often buried in accompaniment material. Climactic moments passed uneventfully. The long passage leading up to the storm lacked any sense of impending fear or mystery or tension, and the storm itself was little more than a noise-fest. Thielemann rushed through the score as if he were in a hurry to get it over with, tumbling from one section to the next with little regard for contrast. No majesty or mystery or sense of spaciousness to this Alpine vista.

Nevertheless, the Staatskapelle Dresden proved once again, as it had two days earlier in Das Rheingold, that it is a prime contender for the title “Best orchestra in the world”. The sound is rich, deep, and superbly balanced, much like a great Burgundy wine or finely aged cognac. Woodwinds give off a plangent radiance, brass are rounded and smooth. Nothing ever sounds forced, coarse or brash, no matter how loudly they play. There were ravishing solos from the principal flute and oboe, and the principal trumpet tossed off his stunning high Ds with blinding brilliance. There is not a single weak link in this band, but surely the strings are its greatest glory (the basses are simply fantastic). I haven’t heard string playing like this since the heyday of the Philadelphia Orchestra more than half a century ago. If only they had a conductor worthy of them.