Thielemann, Staatskapelle Dresden and Batiashvili serve up memorable afternoon of Brahms

April 16, 2013

Christian Thielemann led the Staatskapelle Dresden in an all-Brahms program Sunday afternoon.

There may be older orchestras extant in the world today, but surely there are none with the storied history, esteemed pedigree and international profile of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Led by new music director Christian Thielemann, the German ensemble came to Chicago Sunday afternoon for an all-Brahms program, presented by the Symphony Center Presents series.

Founded in 1548, its lineage reads like a precis of German musical history. Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner served as directors and in the past century alone its conductors have included Fritz Reiner, Fritz Busch, Karl Bohm, Rudolf Kempe, Kurt Sanderling and Giuseppe Sinopoli. Sir Colin Davis, who passed away Sunday at age 85, was the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Bernard Haitink led the ensemble from 2002-2004 and Thielemann took the reins as principal conductor just last fall.

The venerable Dresdeners more than lived up to their reputation Sunday under the celebrated Thielemann, likely the leading candidate to succeed Sir Simon Rattle as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The opening Academic Festival Overture served as a worthy calling card with the lean brilliance, taut ensemble and burnished Dresden strings even more impressive than on past encounters. Of course, having Thielemann, one of the world finest conductors of cornerstone German repertory, didn’t hurt.

Rather than the rushed and noisy reading too often given this marvelous work, from the very first notes Thielemann treated Brahms’ overture as seriously as the concerto and symphony that followed. Dynamics were dexterously calibrated, yet the collegiate main theme went with tremendous exuberance, the exultant finale thrilling while firmly skirting bombast.

As fine and charismatic a conductor as Thielemann is, the afternoon was decisively stolen by soloist Lisa Batiashvili in Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

Lisa Batiashvili

The performance had a fascinating historical resonance with Batiashvili performing the work on the same 1715 Stradivarius that belonged to Joseph Joachim, for whom Brahms composed the work (on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation).

Whether the instrument, the soloist or both, Batiashvili’s timbre emerged rather slender and in the concerto’s more bravura passages one sometimes wanted a bolder, more robust sound.

But the Georgian violinist, 33, more than made up the balance with her immaculate technique and unerring musicality and natural eloquence. Rarely will one hear this thrice-familiar work emerge with the kind of vernal freshness it did with Batiashvili and Thielemann on Sunday.

The violinist’s tone was finely focused throughout and she repeatedly made one sit up with her nuanced way of coloring and turning a phrase. Batishvili eased into the intimate pages with a fluency and a reflective quality that make other performances of this work seem superficial. The Adagio was rendered with a sweet-toned purity that seemed to get to the heart of the burnished sadness that characterizes so much of Brahms’ music.

While her performance was outwardly traditional, Batiashvili also showed herself an individual by performing not the usual Joachim cadenza in the first movement but a decidedly offbeat one by Ferruccio Busoni. Rather than purely soloistic, Busoni accompanies the violin with unsettling timpani rolls and murmers as well as having the lower strings enter several bars early. Not one for purists perhaps but I found the Busoni cadenza effective and delightful.

The performance was rounded off with a wonderfully dynamic finale, zigeneur accents to the fore, with the soloist and Thielemann leaning into each other as if in a duel, throwing solo and orchestral passages back and forth.

Batiashvili received a thunderous ovation, one of the longest and most enthusiastic accorded a downtown soloist in recent seasons. Batiashvili has only performed with the CSO once before in 2006 but the young violinist has clearly earned a ticket back to Chicago with this sensational performance.

The ensuing account of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was on the same high level. Thielemann is at his finest in this repertory and he and his new ensemble clearly enjoy a close relationship, as shown in this firmly held, propulsive and strongly projected reading.

At times in the Andante, Thielemann’s fractional pauses and accelerandos flirted with fussiness but for the most part this was rock-ribbed, central European Brahms, punchy, unsentimental, and supremely well played with the final passacaglia craggy and indomitable.

Repeated ovations brought Thielemann back out. Enthusiastically leaping on the podium, the conductor whirled around and gave the downbeat to a thrilling and edge-of-the-seat encore of—what else?—the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

Kudos to all for a memorable afternoon of music. Let’s please have Thielemann back as a podium guest with the CSO before Berlin comes calling.

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