A Very Good Afternoon For A Very Good Knight
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
Richard Strauss: Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Opus 35 – Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Opus 40
Jan Vogler (Cello), Sebastian Herberg (Viola), Matthias Wollog (Violin)
Dresden Staatskapelle, Fabio Luisi (Conductor)
Fabio Luisi (© Matthias Creutziger/Staatskapelle Dresden)
Hearing the Dresden State Orchestra playing Richard Strauss is probably equivalent to seeing Shakespeare performed by the Globe Theatre. The one difference is that the Globe Theatre, built in 1599, is a toddler compared to the Dresden Orchestra, which gave its first concert a half-century before, in 1548.
But Dresden, for the last 120 years or so, has been the orchestral avatar of Strauss, premiering eight operas and some tone poems (though not the pair played this afternoon). Strauss called Dresden his “lucky city” not only for his personal success but for its orchestras, both opera and symphonic, which executed his highly unusual music for the time, with all the players worthy of his orchestral mastery.
One can see—or at least hear—his point. This was exciting music, with an exciting conductor. There were moments in the opening Don Quixote when I couldn’t believe the lean luscious sounds of the strings. They could sound simply beautiful with the harps at the beginning, or, during the great ride through the heavens, with whispering piano against the brass. Maestro Luisi also had the good sense to emphasize that low low pedal point in the bass and timpani. Strauss, ever the literary literalist, simply was trying to show that the good Knight never left the ground!
Then we come to the horns of the Dresden Staatskapelle. Strauss’s father was the great horn player of the rival Munich orchestra, but so prominent and challenging were the Strauss horns in Don Quixote that the sounds resounded out in the out in the most difficult passages.
But yes, this is a concerto of sorts (a combination concerto and coloring-book!), and Jan Vogler was the wonderful soloist. Compared to many soloists, Vogler was not particularly romantic in his playing. The sound was lean, alert, fearless. In other words, this was less the impressive work for cello than the adventures of one of the greatest humans who never lived. Vogler rushed his cello into the gabbling monks, he tilted and windmills and—best of all—was transformed into the dying knight at the end with an almost tearful beauty.
The picture was complete with viola first chair viola Sebastian Herberg as the practical Sancha Panza, soft-spoken, believing, rational, a lovely complement.
True, the Dresden orchestra has Strauss in its blood, but Maestro Luisi at the helm gave the exciting velocity to the work. One didn’t need to know the story to hear a romp from chivalry to death—which in a way echoed the next work, Strauss’s eponymous “Hero’s Life”.
Yet, it took much chuzpah to write about oneself as a hero at the age of 34. But perhaps, knowing his favorite composer, Mozart, died about that age, so Strauss didn’t want to take a chance at writing his own epitaph. At any rate, Heldenleben could be called be an unkind mirror of Don Quixote. The hero in his own eyes, fighting enemies (the critics), the war, and the works of peace (his own music), along with an equally beautiful death scene.
Again, this was the full distinctive string section, but this time with the great brass bringing out the one-time “atrocious” battle-scene. Last week, the Alexander Nevsky “battle on the ice” was not an homage to Strauss exactly, but one felt the Russian had been set free by Strauss’s dissonances of 50 years before.
In fact, that one movement in the Strauss was so realistic, fiery, that when one of the five trumpets cracked a note, it made perfect sense!! What battle goes perfectly? What clarion call in the middle of blood is without its fears and hesitations?
Again, a first chair player, Concertmaster Matthias Wollog, showed how to play Strauss, this time as his wife Pauline. The composer’s lifetime love for her was never idealized, and Mr. Wollog played her as coquette, lover, helpmate and, yes, shrew.
One must ask why, besides his singular orchestra, Fabio Luisi is such a fine Strauss conductor. Perhaps because his Strauss tone-poems are unashamedly narrative poems, that he tells the story the way Strauss wanted to tell a story. Whether following the Knight from one adventure to another or the Hero ironically reveling in his own compositions, Maestro Luisi was ready to take his fabled centuries-old orchestra down all Strauss’s majestic imaginary promenades.