Staatskapelle Dresden/Thielemann review – revelatory grace and wit

Royal Albert Hall, London
The Strauss specialists played his Till Eulenspiegel with a unique understanding, and rescued Mex Reger’s unfairly neglected Variations on Mozart from obscurity

The second of the Dresden Staatskapelle’s concerts brought to an end the parade of great European orchestras at the Albert Hall this summer. It ended the week’s fixation on Mozart and Bruckner too, not that Mozart was entirely eliminated from Christian Thielemann’s programme, for it included the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, by Max Reger.

This year is the centenary of Reger’s death, though British orchestras haven’t exactly been queuing up to mark the anniversary. It is 25 years since one of his orchestral pieces was heard at the Proms (also brought by the Dresden Staatskapelle), and more than 60 since the only previous performance of the Mozart Variations there. The neglect is hard to explain, especially when, as Thielemann’s wonderfully buoyant, lucid performance showed, there is so much fine music in these variations on the opening theme of Mozart’s A major Piano Sonata K331.

Reger surrounds the theme with proliferating tendrils of melody, and clothes it in shifting chromatic harmonies, but rarely allows its basic outline to disappear. His scoring is always transparent and tactful – the orchestra is basically Mozartean, with just an added harp – and the only grandiose moment is in the last 16 bars, to crown the final fugue. It may not quite be a core repertoire piece, but it’s certainly not one for the dustbin of history either.

Before it, Nikolaj Znaider had been the impeccable soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. It was an opportunity for him to show off his effortless technical command and his exquisite, if sometimes slightly over-indulgent, pianissimo playing, and for this superb orchestra to reveal the mellow evenness of its string tone.

Soloist Nikolaj Znaider during Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
Impeccable … soloist Nikolaj Znaider during Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Photograph: Oliver Killig

But the real party pieces came at the end of the evening. The Dresden Staatskapelle is the Strauss orchestra par excellence: it was in the pit for the premieres of nine of his operas, it’s the dedicatee of the Alpine Symphony, and it still plays that music with a unique understanding. Here, with Thielemann, it produced an account of Till Eulenspiegel of revelatory grace, wit and delicacy, with every orchestral effect perfectly realised. An encore of the prelude to the third act of Wagner’s Lohengrin was equally exhilarating too.

•Available on BBC iPlayer until 8 October.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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