An Evening with Strauss, von Weber and Bruckner

Rheingoldhalle, Mainz
Friday, April 1st 2011
Staatsphilharmonie Rhineland-Palatinate (conductor: Karl-Heinz Steffens)

Die Romantiker / The Romantics 

When my dad first told me that we had tickets to one of the Mainzer Meisterkonzerte with the Staatsphilharmonie Rhineland-Palatinate at the Rheingoldhalle I was thrilled. When I saw that they were playing Bruckner (amongst von Weber and Strauss), I have to admit I was a bit scared, since I had never heard his 4th symphony (I did listen to it in advance, though, and was positively surprised) and did I find Bruckner quite demanding and at times even exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely looking forward to the concert and I wasn’t disappointed as you’ll find out in the following review.

The opening piece was Carl Maria von Weber’s Overture to his opera Der Freischütz which he composed between 1817 and 1821. Starting with a mysterious string crescendo two horns present the first thematic material: a soothing, soft hunting tune, which is soon disturbed by the strokes of a deep timpani and culminates in a fulminant tutti, then another, more cheerful thematic material emerges, performed by a dynamic tutti. This gets more and more dramatic until it suddenly breaks off and a faster version of the first thematic material ends the overture.
Apart from a hesitating entry of the horn theme, which sounded a little shaky at the beginning, the orchestra played wonderfully, equally clear during both loud and more quiet parts, not least due to Karl-Heinz Steffens’ gripping conducting. Von Weber himself was very proud of his overture and claimed that “one who knows how to listen will find the whole opera in nuce in it.”

After this grand opening, quite a few musicians left the stage, leaving behind a much smaller orchestra to accompany the soloist of the evening – Stefan Dohr, the Principal Horn Player of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Once he had entered the stage, he began to play straightaway, and each note of Richard Strauss’ 2nd Horn Concerto of the year 1942 was breathtakingly accurate. I have seldom heard a horn that could sound so delicate, yet so passionate. There was something incredibly light in his play, he made it look almost too easy – simply enviably!
The first and second movement, the Allegro and the Andante con moto, were a lively linkage of  different imitations and dialogues (for example horn – strings; horn – clarinet) where Dohr stood out with a rich, positive sound of his instrument, whereas the strings were quite reserved – typically for the romantic period, where the winds finally made their way to the top as solo instruments (thanks to the invention of valves that allowed them to play diatonic scales and not only the harmonic series).
In the second movement, the Rondo (Allegro molto), Dohr had the chance to show off his skill, and he certainly did! Swift runs and glissandi proved that Mainz had a very special and talented guest this night. After a rather threatening part, which reminded me of a cloud of angry bees, a horn solo leaded over back to the main theme and culminated in a thrilling finale.
Quite rightly, Dohr received standing ovations and came back for an encore. But here’s the disappointing bit: I was already excited to see and hear a solo performance, when he announced to play the second movement again (“without mistakes this time.”, he added). I know that this has become quite a habit at lots of concerts, and I do find this very annoying. Anyway, apart from that, Stefan Dohr certainly made a huge imprint by expressing his musical talent here in Mainz.

In the concert’s second part (with the complete orchestra back on stage), we finally got to know Mr. Bruckner and his 4th Symphony, also known as the “Romantic”. Once again, a horn opens the first movement – Bewegt, nicht zu schnell – we can hear the subtle strings, a theme played by the flute and imitated by the horn, then a crescendo which develops into an almost movie-soundtrack-like tutti (I was reminded – just a tiny little bit – of Star Wars, I know it’s not comparable at all of course, but it just did at that very moment, I apologise ;)). Since we still are in the romantic period (1879 to be exact), naturally, the brass winds induce the theme, sometimes highly dramatic, then again more quiet, supported by the whole orchestra with an unisono tutti which reinforces the captivating effect of the piece.
The second movement, Andante quasi allegretto, is a slow, marching tune, rather depressing in minor. The violas have quite a large solo part here, accompanied by the somewhat creepy pizzicatos of the other strings. Often changing the dynamics, this movement ends with an extremely quiet pizzicato of the violins.
The third movement, Scherzo – Trio, features a hunting theme again, horns and trumpets are the protagonists in this piece as well. Dialogically structured, this movement seems always to be in motion, there is a certain atmosphere of departure in it.
The fourth and last movement, the Finale, takes up the theme from the first movement, an impressive unisono tutti with lots of contrasts (both dynamic- and melody-wise) ends the concert.

As you might have noticed – the third and the fourth movements aren’t quite as detailed as the other two. This is because I just didn’t feel ready for it. I didn’t manage to see the music through competently, it felt too heavy, too big. If you have the chance to hear Bruckner’s 4th live, please go and do so, since it’s a brilliantly composed part of music history. You might need to get a feel for Bruckner first, because so did I. Not everyone can cope immediately with his abrupt changes of volume (in this regard he can partly be compared to Wagner), I can imagine. But the more you listen to classical music of all epochs you will find out what you like best.

So, as a résumé I can say that I enjoyed this concert very much, especially the excellent performance of horn player Stefan Dohr. Karl-Heinz Steffens and his orchestra played to the point, passionately and convincingly. Next in the Mainzer Meisterkonzerte Reihe is Schöpferische Früchte – the programme will consist of works by Carl Maria von Weber, Johannes Brahms and César Franck. For more information see,com_awcalendar/Itemid,18/

Hope you liked what you’ve read! ;)
Stella x


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