Date: October 23, 2013
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.
Michael Sanderling led the Dresdner players in an evening of romanticism, featuring Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Dvorak’s violin concerto with the young and talented Julia Fischer, and finally Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Julia Fischer’s violin playing was feisty and articulate, though her mannerisms on stage gave the impression that she did not feel particularly affectionate towards or comfortable with the piece. In her encore performance, Paganini’s Caprice No. 15, her fingering was feathery and not labored at all, despite all the technical traps of the piece. More importantly, the sort of delicate care that she placed into her phrasing and dynamics suggested that the work was deeply personal to her.
A Tristan Liebestod without a soprano voice was like eating dry pancakes without syrup; the best that could be said of Dresden’s performance here was that all notes were played and phrasal arches seemed to suggest some sort of dramatic consequence behind the music. But there was hardly any inkling that fate and death had anything to do with their clinical but unfortunately rather lifeless rundown. With Brahms, Michael Sanderling could not bring out the best of the players until the second movement, but by then damage has been done. During the development section of the first movement, strings and winds were supposed to converse in a series of call and response, almost like a gentle quarrel between two young, passionate lovers, but instead what was heard was a bland series of notes that happened in time but offered little else, even in the context of Brahms’ pure music. The horns’ second movement entry was timid and unfocused. The lower brasses, which were given plenty of attention by the composer in the fourth movement, were frequently hesitant – a fatal flaw in a movement where Brahms obviously played tribute to the structural clarity of classicism. But all was not lost. Brahms made a commitment, particularly in this last symphonic work of his, to highlight woodwinds not merely as a crucial harmonic support but as a defining one, even if often buried in the rest of the orchestral harmonics. The woodwind players duly complied and, in my life of hearing Brahms, I have not heard an oboist as devoted and as lyrical as the lovely Undine Röhner-Stolle, Dresden’s principal. Her playing beamed with lyrical beauty, like small lilac pedals floating mid-air in autumn breezes. Her phrasal entrances were clean and committed; her phrasing was sublime and heart-warmingly poetic.
I could not remember the last time when I was compelled, after a performance, to google to find out more about an orchestra member. Röhner-Stolle’s commitment seemed contagious too: players around her found themselves unchained and seemingly having a time of their life. As audience, we live for and cherish those moments.