There was nothing flashy and a lot to admire in last night’s Kennedy Center performance by the Dresden Staatskapelle, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. The brass sounded almost muted throughout most of the evening, and when they finally played a proper, blaring fortissimo, in the final pages of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, it was clear they weren’t in their comfort zone. The best moments of the concert were the small-scale ones, details of wind playing, pianissimo strings, moments when conductor Daniel Harding’s surfeit of good ideas came together into a unified and compelling performance.
But there was also something rather unfinished about the performance, which is odd given that the Staatskapelle is one of the world’s greatest orchestras. Harding, still in his mid 30s, had a spectacular rise to fame about a decade ago, and more recently has suffered the inevitable and often cruel second thoughts of critics who once acclaimed him a wunderkind. He seems very gifted, and smart, and interested in the nuance of music rather than the splashy effects. But I don’t think every moment of this performance had the precision and intellectual control that a more seasoned conductor would bring to it. The winds, for all their delicate beauty in the third movement of the Brahms, were also prone to sloppy, staggered entrances. And while the conductor was expert at dynamic balance and shaping answering phrases in his accompaniment of pianist Rudolf Buchbinder in the Schumann Piano Concerto, there were a couple of moments when soloist and orchestra weren’t playing together, surprising lapses in a performance that was otherwise very satisfying.
So a mixed evening. Buchbinder is old school, and modest enough in his playing to forge a proper, symphonic account of the concerto rather than a piano spectacle with orchestral background noise. The Staatskapelle is gorgeous to listen to (though the upper string sound is a bit harsh under the gruesome acoustical light of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall), and they play Brahms with a gentle, easy familiarity. But Harding didn’t manage to clarify the orchestration of Schumann’s Manfred Overture (the first piece on the program), and his Brahms was sporadically interesting but not polished. The audience, however, didn’t mind. The orchestra received the usual standing ovation.