music review

Daniel Harding conducts Dresden Staatskapelle with uneven hand

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dresden Staatskapelle, which the Washington Performing Arts Society brought to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night, is one of the world's oldest orchestras; it was founded in 1548. It is also, based on the evidence of its performance, among the world's loveliest.

The ensemble wears its age lightly. It has the warmth that you'd expect from a Central European orchestra, but on Wednesday, there was nothing plummy about it, even in a piece such as the Brahms Second Symphony, which might encourage plumminess. Rather, it played with the sunny sweet bite of a Sauternes, distilled and mellowed over the years into flavors of elegant sophistication. Strings were lithe; winds, articulate; brass, radiant. Daniel Harding, the British conductor who is leading the orchestra's tour, and the players managed a balance that allowed the whole thing to shimmer.

Harding, by contrast, has been known throughout his career as a very young conductor. Now in his mid-30s, he started as an assistant to Simon Rattle in Birmingham when he was in his teens; he became Claudio Abbado's assistant in Berlin in 1995, and he has had to go through some of the wunderkind-learning-about-life's-hard-knocks career travails in the years since. (High: He's principal guest conductor of the blue-chip London Symphony Orchestra. Low: He was booed in Aix-en-Provence for "The Magic Flute.")

He's been conducting professionally for long enough that it's facile to ascribe his callowness to his youth. But he still demonstrates an unevenness that makes it easy to call him a work-in-progress. There was a lot to like on Wednesday: He favored a limpid sound, with flexibility and ease. At his best, he got the music to grow organically, creating something expansive from something very small, so that unpromising beginnings led to gripping musicmaking. At his worst, he could sound sluggish, mannered, even a little sloppy. The first piece on the program, Schumann's "Manfred" Overture, was certainly an unpromising beginning: all pregnant pauses and manufactured drama that was never allowed to breathe on its own.

And Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor started slightly at loose ends. Rudolf Buchbinder, a Viennese pianist and a big star, especially in Europe, played with a dryness that approached fussiness and a regularity that was at odds with Harding's tugging at the tempo. But soloist and orchestra fused into something quite enchanting. The third movement began sluggishly, as if Buchbinder were lifting a great weight rather than giving a rousing horn-call. But the arrival of the fast passages liberated everyone and the playing became a sheer delight, technical mastery without self-conscious virtuosity.

The Brahms had the same disparity between moments of inertia -- Harding's careful quietness at the start came off as simply an absence of energy -- and moments of insight. To Harding's credit, the performance, if uneven, was not episodic; the music always flowed, one thought giving way to another. He had an impressive orchestra to work with. If his eye to detail didn't always extend to things like clean entrances, or preventing a stumble in the winds, moments like the soft honeyed horn solo in the second movement, or the brio of the finale, made up for it.

The Staatskapelle is awaiting conductor Christian Thielemann, who takes over in 2012 with what will probably be a firmer hand; but Harding led them here through a concert that warmed into something deeply enjoyable, finishing with Weber's "Freischutz" Overture as an exuberant encore.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company