Caroline Shaw Wins Pulitzer Prize for Music
Dresden Staastkapelle Perform Bruckner 8 at Carnegie Hall

Christian Thielemann Leads Staatskapelle Dresden in All-Brahms Program

by Michael Cirigliano II

Staatskapelle Dresden, Carnegie Hall, Feast of Music, Batiashvili

Photo credit: Matthias Creutziger

After a rash of heavy, Mahlerian programming from many of the touring orchestras passing through Carnegie Hall this winter, it was incredibly inviting to see conductor Christian Thielemann bring the Staatskapelle Dresden to the American stage for an intimate evening of Brahms. Although the program’s three works only span seven years during the composer’s late period, the tone of each work showcased the rich diversity of Brahms’ character, encompassing the drunken revelry of the Academic Festival Overture, the never-ending lyrical flow of the Violin Concerto, and the staunch formalism of the Fourth Symphony.

After winning over the Mostly Mozart Festival audience last summer with a pristine performance of Beethoven’s seminal Violin Concerto, Lisa Batiashvili returned to New York with a completely different temperament in hand for the Brahms. Although there were a number of similarly elegant moments across the two works for the soloist to display a delicate and mature sense of phrasing and color variation, there was a heightened sense of drama and aggression delivered in the Brahms, from double-stopped minor-key marches to the finale’s fiery gypsy dance and bold choice of the timpani-heavy Ferruccio Busoni cadenza.

Even from the violin’s first entrance after the orchestral exposition, Batiashvili was ready to take charge, and the initial phrase’s wide-ranging melodic span and impeccable intonation stopped the orchestra in its tracks. Communicating closely with Thielemann throughout the work, Batiashvili exhibited a great amount of freedom within her lines—creating many improvisatory gestures that never veered outside of the orchestra’s solid metric framework. Every contour was organically phrased, especially in the central Adagio, where the soloist and oboist Céline Moinet traded captivating performances of the tender and iconic principal melody.

Thielemann continued to extract rich sound from his orchestra during the Fourth Symphony, where the juxtaposition of thick strings and velveteen woodwinds made for a robust set of colors. Although the Fourth is well-known for its stormy outer movements, the ensemble made a convincing case for the middle movements: a lyrical slow movement hinging on an enigmatic melody using the ancient Phrygian mode, and Brahms’ only use of a proper scherzo in a symphony.

The vibrant dance was never garish or punchy with the German players, who kept their rounded sound intact and left the spiky character to be conveyed by the rare appearance of piccolo, triangle, and cymbal, calling to mind the Turkish band music regularly employed by Mozart and Beethoven. The Andante moderato was marred by the bright and unfocused clarinet section—the only players throughout the evening to make their presences known for all the wrong reasons. Luckily, once the large string body took over the movement’s second theme, pastoral grandeur was attained.

Thielemann proved to be an imposing presence on the podium, using large gestures and quite a lot of motion to stir the players. The conviction in his interpretation was never in doubt, and he took advantage of each pivotal moment within the work’s structure while never veering into overwrought territory. There was a seething intensity to the symphony’s final moments, and each push in tempo increased the vibrancy of the torrential string tremolos and brass declamations. The energy was frenetic, and many other conductors could take notes to ensure that Brahms—often regarded as the stodgy gatekeeper of the past—receives this kind of energetic and forward-thinking interpretation more often.

The Staatskapelle Dresden returns to Carnegie Hall Friday night, April 19, for a performance of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony. Tickets available at the Carnegie website.