It goes without saying that Germany has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to world-class orchestras. Beyond what is arguably the world's greatest orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, there is the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin—all regularly ranked among the greatest orchestras in the world.
And then there is the Dresden Staatskapelle, founded in 1548 as the court orchestra for the Elector of Saxony. Beyond its distinctive, dark-wooden sound, the Staatskapelle is famous for its association with composers such as Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, both of whom led the orchestra and premiered many of their operas with them. (Wagner used to refer to the Staatskapelle as his "golden harp.") The orchestra is also famous for being a favorite of conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Sir Colin Davis, and Herbert von Karajan, all of whom who helped maintain and shape the orchestra's brilliant sound.
Last summer, the Dresden baton was passed to Christian Thielemann: a Berlin native who, despite being rarely seen on these shores, has long been the poster boy for Teutonic music. In addition to heavy speculation that he'll succeed Simon Rattle in Berlin when he retires in 2018, Thielemann, 53, has been the musical advisor to the Bayreuth Festival since 2010, where he'll lead a special concert on the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth next month. (I'll be there.)
After Wednesday's brilliant all-Brahms performance, Thielemann and the Staatskapelle returned to Carnegie Hall last night to perform a single work: Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. This symphony—the last one Bruckner finished—has long been placed at or near the summit of orchestral music: it is an epic sweep of monumental sound best left to seasoned conductors and orchestras.
The Dresden players did not disappoint. Throughout the 90-minute symphony, the orchestra sounded crisp and sharp, with players constantly looking around at their neighbors, adjusting their own sound to fit within the organic whole. Thielemann, who conducted without a score, was an imposing, almost menacing presence on the podium—a cross between Conan O'Brien and Frankenstein. Thielemann was mostly reserved throughout, casually leaning back on the podium between movements as if he were waiting for his order to be called. That is, until the apocalyptic finale, when his massive wingspan filled the stage with intense gestures, his face red and dripping with sweat. I won't soon forget the huge crescendo at the end, almost cosmic in its grandeur.