Dresden Philharmonic at Symphony Hall ★★★★

Dresden is the perfect example of the esteem with which classical music is held in Germany. A city with half the population of Birmingham has a resident opera company and not one but two symphony orchestras. There is the Staatskapelle Dresden founded in 1548 – sixteen years before Shakespeare was born – and the Dresden Philharmonic which, in comparison, is a mere stripling founded in 1870, which still makes its considerably older than the CBSO. Many touring orchestras are obviously in awe of Symphony Hall but the Philharmonic has a chic acoustically engineered 1,800 seater auditorium, opened in 2017, and probably felt it to be home-from-home. The Russian conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky was in charge for this six-concert British tour which featured three works from his homeland. He opened with the Prelude from Mussorgsky’s opera ‘Khovanshchina’ not a work well known in Britain but if it sounded familiar then perhaps it's because of its similarity to ‘Dawn’, the first orchestral interlude, from Britten’s ‘Peter Grimes’. Here it’s dawn over Moscow, a quiet shimmering of strings, a cock crow, the chiming of bells, a five minute piece giving us a chance to hear the orchestra’s excellent flute and clarinet players.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 reflects the perilous political plight of its composer in 1948. Denounced as a “formalist” under the watchful eye of Stalin’s cultural commissar Zhdanov, it lay unperformed for seven years until the dictator’s death and Shostakovich’s artistic rehabilitation. The opening Nocturne conjures up a bleak vigil by the sleepless composer – or a Russian Everyman perhaps – facing personal annihilation. The Russian-born American soloist Maria Ioudenitch perfectly elicited the music’s desolation and barely-suppressed despair. Ioudenitch’s searing intensity was palpable, no other concerto requires such continual ferocious bowing, so that the madcap hysterical Scherzo was an explosion of extrovert energy. Kochanovsky and his players hurled themselves into the frenzy, the distorted Jewish elements of the music vigorously projected. The succeeding Passacaglia and Cadenza are the dark heart of the work and Ioudenitch’s intense focus were impressive – so were her pizzicato and spiccato bowing – and she found a lyrical element even in its most uncompromising material. In the hurtling final Burlesque she and the orchestra illuminated its excoriating dementedly dark circus music – more Beckett & Kafka than Barnum & Bailey.

Touring orchestras usually programme a symphony with an applause-grabbing ending but Kochanovsky chose instead Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ with its bleak Adagio lamentoso finale, the Philharmonic’s string section impressive here, its musical pulse slowly dying away. This was a straight-forward reading of the work, illuminated by the orchestra’s excellent wind and brass sections, with Kochanovsky eschewing any eccentric exaggerations. It did leave the Allegro molto vivace a little under-characterized, missing some of the hysterical laughing-in-the face-of tragedy Tchaikovsky surely intended.

Norman Stinchcombe

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