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The Genuine German Spirit

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
05/04/2009 -  
Carl Maria von Weber: Oberon Overture
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Staatskapelle Dresden, Fabio Luisi (Music Director/Conductor)

Fabio Luisi (© Matthias Creutziger)

The Staatskapelle Dresden, an orchestra with a 461-year history, is one of the longest-tradition ensembles in Europe, with eminent composers like Heinrich Schütz, Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner, as well as conductors like Ernst von Schuch, Fritz Busch, Karl Böhm, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and Bernard Haitink as its principal conductors. Many famous composers have written works either dedicated to the orchestra or first performed in Dresden, including Vivaldi, Schumann, Wagner, Liszt, Hindemith, Weill, and more recently, Matthus, Udo Zimmermann, Ruzicka and Rihm.

Richard Strauss, who had close links to the orchestra for over 60 years, premiered nine of his operas in Dresden (including Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier) and dedicated his Alpine Symphony to the Staatskapelle. “The sound of this peerless orchestra always stirs anew feelings of tender gratitude and admiration,” he said in 1948. In fact, the ensemble retains its international reputation as a Strauss Orchestra up to the present day.

On Sunday evening, Staatskapelle Dresden’s current music director (since 2007) Fabio Luisi chose an all-Strauss program as their opening concert in Hong Kong. The Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Burleske, and Also sprach Zarathustra all served as a spectacle of Strauss’ heirs, through Mr. Luisi’s pristine, authentic, though a little “Italian” readings of these three works. In the second concert, the Staatskapelle continued to display their glorious German tradition by selecting three pieces that are closely associated to the orchestra’s long history.

Monday evening’s concert was opened by the Oberon Overture, composed by Carl Maria von Weber, one of the legendary Kapellmeister of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Conducting without a score and stand, Maestro Luisi intimately provoked the audience’s emotions and devotions right at the beginning of the concert.

However, the luminous curtain riser was somehow rotted by Emanuel Ax’s monochromatic and underwhelming rendition of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Although he was capable of capturing the composer’s impetuous temperament, the hard-edged articulation and lackluster intonation made this reading rather stodgy and dreary. Even the most lyrical Largo movement came across as inert and stagnant. Beethoven’s trademark C-minor profundity, particularly in the first movement, became the important missing ingredient. It was the orchestral variegation that brought some amusement to the audience. The most blissful moment came from the coda of the first movement, where the orchestra succeeded the solo cadenza with whispering pianissimo, which empowered unbearable tension to the ending of the movement.

Mr. Ax delivered Chopin’s C-sharp minor Nocturne (op. 27, no. 1) as an encore, which sounded, again, over-studied and rather ponderous. It reminded this writer of his languid and understated Chopin Second Piano Concerto with the HKPO two years ago.

The heritage of German tradition went on after the intermission, with Brahms’ Fourth Symphony as a conclusion of Staatskapelle’s Hong Kong station of their Asia tour. This work, first performed by the orchestra with the composer himself as conductor, was another rational and pristine account by Mr. Luisi. In contrast to the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester’s rendition of the same piece at the same place two months ago, Staatskapelle’s version seemed more intent on mining the music’s German solemnity and gravity, rather than its surface charm. The strings produced a typical Central European rich sound, with the harmonious brass and noble woodwinds providing luxurious sonority. Mr. Luisi, once again without putting the score in front of him, conducted with poise and aplomb, leading to a solemn and majestic interpretation.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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