BBC Proms 2020: Beethoven, Reger & Strauss

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On the 8th of September 2016, Christian Thielemann conducted the Staatskapelle Dresden at the Royal Albert Hall, London, as part of the BBC Proms. On the 18th of July 2020, in lieu of a live performance, the BBC chose to broadcast this archived performance on Radio 3. The orchestra performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, and Richard Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. For the Beethoven, Nikolaj Znaider joined as soloist.

In all honesty, I have never quite understood the Beethoven obsession. For that reason, if I had my way, nobody would ever play his Violin Concerto, one of his least interesting works. Nikolaj Znaider does his very best to convince me in his performance that this concerto is interesting, and full credit should be given to his virtuosic abilities. Znaider continually explores the full potential of his instrument, with an ethereal high register contrasting a much grittier low register. Clearly an excellent soloist to accompany, he is aware of both his time to shine, and his time to give way to the orchestra.

“Znaider continually explores the full potential of his instrument, with an ethereal high register contrasting a much grittier low register.”

Thielemann’s orchestra takes an unashamedly Classical approach to the accompaniment, although allowing a Romantic warmth to shine from time to time creates a multifaceted performance. If there is any criticism of the orchestra in the Beethoven, it is that the strings do occasionally seem to go into autopilot. In the second movement, a minor error in timing between Znaider and the orchestra in the 2nd movement fails to sour what is otherwise a successful performance.

Certainly, Znaider’s performance was highly laudable, and the audience clearly thought so too, stomping their feet in appreciation. However, even his talents were not quite enough to convince me of the concerto’s merit. Znaider concluded the first half with an understated encore, playing Bach with a pleasing delicacy and presence.

The second half opened with Reger’s Mozart Variations, one of the most exciting uses of Variation Form in the canon, and yet criminally underplayed. The key word in Thielemann’s interpretation is subtlety – unfortunately, this sometimes meant erring on the side of caution, and therefore not fully expressing the drama inherent in the work. Concurrently, some of the nuances in the work’s orchestration were lost. Despite this, there are a great many good points in this performance indeed – Variation IV, for instance, brims with excitement, and Variation V continues this trend with sudden changes in tempo and dynamics, ensuring that the audience are never bored. The energetic pace of the fugue was a delight, and the orchestra holds nothing back as the grand Romantic climax is reached.

The highlight of the concert was surely Richard Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel. Brimming with energy and humour, Thielemann and his orchestra embrace the maverick nature of the titular character, a protagonist of German folklore. Even in the more lyrical moments, nothing is taken too seriously. It should not be understated how technically challenging Til Eulenspiegel is, and yet the Staatskapelle Dresden make it look easy. There could have been more dynamic contrast in places, but on the whole, a delightful performance, which at one moment even made me laugh out loud.

“This archived concert from 2016 was not, in my view, without its disappointments, however, I came way from it with a smile on my face.”

Warmly appreciated by the audience, Thielemann took to the stage once more to conduct an encore – the prelude to Act III of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Playing at a breakneck pace, no-one could disagree that the interpretation was ‘molto vivace’. With plenty of energy from the strings, Rossini-esque lyricism from the winds, and bombast from the brass, this was an energetic encore which rounded off the concert very nicely. This archived concert from 2016 was not, in my view, without its disappointments, however, I came way from it with a smile on my face. Special appreciation should be given to Thielemann and the orchestra for their efforts with Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel, a performance which, frankly, made the whole concert worth it.    

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