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Music lovers and critics who attend a lot of concerts hear the basic repertory numerous times. Routine performances take their toll, so an "all war-horse" program had better bring special insights and qualities. From several perspectives, the touring Dresden Philharmonic, which appeared in the marvelous acoustics of Belk Theater on November 14 as part of the Carolinas Concert Association's 75th anniversary season, did just that. To a Triangle concert attendee of a certain age, the CCA is like the old Friends of the College series, but the venue, which is definitely not a basketball temple, is ideal — and the prices are commensurate with that higher quality.
Less well known than the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Dresden Philharmonic traces its formation back to the opening of the first concert hall in Dresden, on November 29, 1870. Marking the 1885 transition from concerts for the aristocracy to concerts for the general public, the then "Gewerbehausorchestra" gave full seasons of symphonic programs and took its current name in 1915. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, and Richard Strauss conducted and often premiered their works with the orchestra. The orchestra's all-Brahms program for Charlotte was thus historically fitting.
Violinist Julia Fischer, the most exciting new artist heard during last summer's Eastern Music Festival, is in her early 20s, and she played with even greater artistry than her media hype led one to expect. Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 77, held no apparent fears for her as, after a beautifully prepared introduction, she confidently attacked the opening solo on her "Booth" Stradivarius (1716) violin. To the Brahms, the Dresden Philharmonic brought a distinctive string sound, mellower and plusher than the brighter sonority of American orchestras, and the brasses blended well into the fuller texture. Fischer was daring as she lit into the exposed high notes, and her intonation was superb. Her overall concept of the piece gave evidence of considerable musical maturity. Whether playing loud or floating the softest passages, the full tone of her violin could be easily heard. Principal Conductor Rafael Frübeck de Burgos kept an eagle eye on Fischer's every move, providing unusually close-fitting accompaniment. There was a fine chamber-music quality in Fischer's dialogs with the orchestral soloists, especially the full-toned horn in the first movement and the oboe's extended passage in the second. The woodwinds use much wider vibrato than is common in America. The gypsy-flavored finale, with its exposed high notes, double-stopping, and arpeggiated figurations, vouchsafed the quality of Fischer's virtuosity.
Rafael Frübeck de Burgos must have studied with a student of the Richard Strauss school of conducting. He led with a meticulous beat of his baton, often just from the wrist, moving his right arm sparingly, and he rarely used his left hand. Completely free of a score, he led a solid, individualized but fully satisfying interpretation of Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68. For the first movement, I prefer a tempo that suggests an unstoppable forward surge, such as those taken on recordings by Günter Wand, Bruno Walter, or most recently — in concert — by Dmitri Sitkovetsky and the Greensboro Symphony. De Burgos clearly places more weight on the admonition "un poco sostenuto" than on "allegro" since his first movement was almost as slow as the second, marked "andante sostenuto." Still it had unquestionable forward drive. Despite having only a slightly more strings than our larger regional orchestras, they produced a sound that was fatter than the number of players would have led one to expect. The sound was much fuller, especially in very quiet passages, than we remember from visits by the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic or even the Boston Symphony. Most ear catching were the profoundly dark low notes of the eight five-string double-basses, which were unmistakable, even at the lowest dynamics. The second movement, aglow with lyricism, featured precise and careful phrasing from the string choirs. The sumptuous sounds of the viola section and a splendid clarinet solo were memorable, and the solo of Concertmistress Heike Janicke was impeccable. The buildup of the orchestral tension in the third movement, with wonderfully nuanced pizzicatos, was a model of Romantic style. The briefest of pauses led to the dark-colored opening of the fourth movement, with its slow and majestic intensification, a resplendent horn solo, and some impressive playing from the trombone choir in the fast portion that ends the piece.
Any thought of the Dresden Philharmonic being limited to a Teutonic stylistic stolidity vanished in the dash, verve and transparent textures of two encores — Intermezzos from Enrique Granados' Goyescas and from the zarzuela La Boda de Luis Alonso.