x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rousing and revolutionary

The Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra brought drama and romance to Emirates Palace, evoking a time when the Romantics were the rock stars of the day.

As a lesson in contrast, you would be hard pressed to find two more illustrative examples than Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, and Bruckner's "Romantic" Symphony No. 4 in E flat major. Even for those who don't know their classical from their romantic, it was clear on Saturday night, when the venerable Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra took on two pioneers of their respective musical generations, that someone, at some point, had pulled the rug from beneath the feet of Mozart and his contemporaries, given it an almighty shake and replaced it in a crumpled heap so that Bruckner could work his transformative magic.

Thus came a historic moment in western music when, at the beginning of the 19th century, composers started to break away from formal classical restrictions and instead sought to portray the energy and emotion of life through strange and unpredictable bursts of sound. The German conductor Christoph Eschenbach, one of the world's great pianists, and a curious cross between Yul Brynner and Brian Eno, took the Staatskapelle - one of the oldest orchestras in the world - through their paces from his seat at the piano, where he somehow balanced the delicate art of conducting with performing.

Written in the autumn of 1782 as part of a group of three concertos, Mozart's work mixes sweetly lyrical melody with moments of complex intensity. Swooning strings are followed by lone, lingering piano notes. So delicate was Eschenbach's touch that at times he seemed to barely brush the keys. It was a passionate and largely faultless performance, but despite the new acoustics installed in the Emirates Palace auditorium, it sounded, at times, rather lost.

Not so with Bruckner's "Romantic" symphony, for which the newly swollen orchestra filled every inch of the stage. While the first half of the evening belonged to Eschenbach and his piano, the second was all about the strings. From the opening low, shivering notes, through which appeared the single horn and the symphony's signature theme, evocative of a romantic Alpine landscape, the shift in styles was dramatic.

The musical landscape was changed forever when Beethoven shook things up with his "Eroica" Symphony in 1803. And Bruckner, with his unconventional structural methods, took things to the next level when he wrote this work in 1874, giving the Austrian composer his first great success. It may have taken inspiration from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, but as openings go, this one was momentous in its quietness. From there, the brass and strings climbed to a great glorious, drum-laden climax before falling away once again. And so continued the first movement in a cycle of furious highs and muttering lows.

The string section had some respite in the second movement when, presumably as part of Bruckner's great experimental vision, he threw in some pizzicato. But it was back to frantically shuddering strings in the third when the stage became a blur of bows. Alternating between a repeated refrain, it was all rather breathless - but spectacular. Finally, in the fourth, a barely discernible drum beat grew, in the same way the strings had, to a dramatic boom. We had seen so many thunderous highs that it was hard to see how it could be bettered. And when it ended, just as it had started, with muttering strings, it all felt rather sudden.

The romantic composers were all about painting visual pictures with sound - of the awesome power of nature; of the power of imagination over rationalism; and of the great drama of life. In Bruckner's work, we had had glimpses of all these things, as well as an overriding sense, with Europe in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, of glory and ambition. Whereas Mozart's great concerto is exquisite in terms of structure and melody, you can see how the Romantics, including writers such as Byron with their swashbuckling adventures, and painters such as Francisco de Goya and Caspar David Friedrich, were hailed as the rock stars of their day.

The distinctly Teutonic Staatskepelle, though not exactly rock stars, were as exemplary as you would expect from an orchestra that is celebrating its 461st birthday this year. Though clearly a physically gruelling work, they performed it with visible passion. Even today, it feels like a shot of musical adrenalin. Goodness knows what our 19th-century counterparts must have made of it.