An ordinary orchestra bringing an all-Brahms program to town might elicit no more than a yawn from your average jaded concertgoer. But when that orchestra happens to be the extraordinary Staatskapelle Dresden, your pulse quickens in anticipation.
The Dresdeners have long had the music of Brahms in their bones, of course, and no concert of his works by this orchestra, one of the world's finest and most venerable (it was founded 465 years ago, making the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a relative newborn), is going to be business as usual.
So it was Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center when the orchestra made a long-overdue return to downtown Chicago under the German superstar conductor Christian Thielemann, who became its principal conductor last summer.
Thielemann himself has long been missing in action locally, having last appeared with the CSO in 1995, at the invitation of then music director Daniel Barenboim. (A scheduled rematch in 2001 was canceled.) Hopes that Thielemann might go on to forge a relationship with Lyric Opera also were dashed after the company stuck him with a wretched production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" for his debut there in 1999.
The illustrious Staatskapelle is one of the few major orchestras that has fiercely guarded its musical identity in an era when so many others have sacrificed their identity to a kind of one-size-fits-all, international sound and style. A tradition such as theirs is something to be worn proudly. Yet one may expect a conductor so dedicated to promoting German culture as Thielemann to infuse the Dresden brand with his own feeling for the Austro-German symphonic tradition.
In fact, that infusing process already seems to have begun. The quality of blend he summoned for Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture," which began Sunday's program, bespoke a melding of old and new impulses. The strings played with as much burnished sweetness as the hall's dry acoustics would allow. The woodwinds were finely knit, the horns unusually mellow, the brass focused, not heavy. Collectively the Dresdeners produced a deep Brahms sound one would not mistake for that of any other orchestra, save perhaps the Berlin Philharmonic.
These virtues came to the fore even more prominently in the close accompaniment Thielemann wrapped around Lisa Batiashvili's triumphant account of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
The violinist, who hails from the former Soviet republic of Georgia and now lives with her husband in France, plays a 1715 Stradivarius once owned by Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms wrote the work. Oddly, the cadenza she played in the first movement was not Joachim's but an inferior curiosity by Ferruccio Busoni, which resembles a duet between violin and timpani.
Like everything else in the concerto, she played it with a ravishing and varied tone, supple phrasing, firm rhythm and a close regard for the developmental logic of the music. With her leonine bow arm she drew a bright, penetrating yet wonderfully flexible sound from her instrument.
Moreover, her rubato, those little rhythmic hesitations that give life to a musical line, was placed entirely at the service of the music, especially in the slow movement. In the liner note to her new DG recording of the Brahms (also with Thielemann and the Dresden), she calls this movement Brahms' "incredibly passionate declaration" of his love for Clara Schumann. And that's the way Batiashvili played it, with an intensity that sang with piercing sweetness.
The crowd went wild at the end, and Thielemann gave the soloist kisses on the cheek and hand.
Brahms' Fourth Symphony felt less of a piece as an interpretation although it, too, displayed many of the musical attributes that set this great orchestra apart.
Thielemann plumbed unsuspected depths of tonal refinement in the slow movement, tinged with the distinctive German oboe coloration. He also brought a hushed, misterioso quality to the cantabile pages. But he also pushed entire sections of the work – the scherzo in particular, which felt more strenuous than giocoso (merry) – and these sudden bursts of urgency did not always allow the autumnal score to make its points without feeling pressured and driven.
The orchestra members played marvelously for him, however, and the audience responded with fervent ovations. Conductor and orchestra bade farewell to Chicago with an encore, the Act 3 Prelude to Wagner's "Lohengrin."
The program was thoughtfully dedicated to the CSO's great former music director, Fritz Reiner, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death and the 125th anniversary of his birth. Reiner also served as chief conductor of the Staatskapelle from 1914-22.
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