Dresden orchestra lives up to more than 400 years of excellence

April 22, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Dresden Staatskapelle (the Dresden State Orchestra) has the longest pedigree in symphonic music. It was founded in 1548, was the favorite orchestra of composers as widely separated in time as Beethoven and Richard Strauss, and has included among its music directors such worthies as Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schutz, Richard Wagner, Fritz Reiner, Karl Boehm and Herbert Blomstedt.

To judge by the concert it gave at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night under its new music director, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Dresden's future promises to continue its distinguished past. This is a superb orchestra. Like most of the best Central European ensembles, it has a beautiful string tone (in Schoenberg's "Verklaerte Nacht," the basses struck thunder without ever sounding harsh) and fine wind players (the horn-playing in Wagner's "Lohengrin" prelude was exemplary). But an orchestra is only as interesting as its conductor, and in Sinopoli, who became music director last season, Dresden has secured the services of one of the most interesting of his generation.

The bearded, Italian-born conductor, who bears a striking resemblance to Gustav Mahler, has been described as something of a wild man on the podium.

That may have been true in the past but is not the case now. His beat is easy to follow and his gestures, while expressive, are economical. And if Sinopoli's interpretations are deeply personal, even daring, they never obtrusively call attention to themselves.

The "Lohengrin" prelude was beautifully structured. It was filled with erotic and spiritual longing; the conductor built it in a single curve, which led up to its tremendous climax and then gently subsided.

Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night" may have been even better. This piece for string orchestra -- and Sinopoli used every string player he had -- is not easy to bring off. The conductor elicited an interpretation of tremendous intensity and enormous variety of color.

This was a performance of remarkable refinement, and the thrust of the music's argument -- throughout the whole piece -- was so powerfully conveyed that it left a listener limp with exhaustion at its conclusion.

The conductor led Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in a rather unorthodox fashion. Sinopoli thumbed his nose at the new orthodoxies of the historical-performance movement. Instead of characterizing the composer as the classical successor of Haydn and Mozart, Sinopoli personified him as the romantic precursor of Brahms and Bruckner.

There was not a lot of space between the notes, as there is when conductors such as David Zinman perform this music; the music was connected in seamless and smooth curves. Sinopoli strove for weight and warmth rather than refinement and wit. He achieved it most satisfyingly. The ghosts of Bruno Walter and Karl Boehm must have been smiling.

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