Rebounding Dresden Stages A Music Festival

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Looking at Dresden today –  with the Baroque splendor of the restored Semperoper and Frauenkirche in the same neighborhood as drab Communist architecture and a modern indoor shopping mall off the Altmarkt that could be located anywhere – you are confronted with the abrupt clash between the very old, the very new, and the recent past. It is the home of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna;” the city where “Der Fliegende Holländer,” “Tannhäuser,” “Salome,” “Elektra” and “Der Rosenkavalier” were first performed – and also where the Nazis thrived and where a notoriously vicious Allied fire-bombing campaign flattened the old city in 1945. It brought out the best in man and the beast in man, as the sages say.

Inside Dresden’s Semperoper, one of Europe’s most beautiful opera houses, rebuilt to its old splendor 40 years after being flattened in 1945 by Allied bombers. (c) Richard S. Ginell

These days, it is the best side that is prevailing, and one of its celebratory events is the annual Dresdner Musikfestspiele, which drew a curious first-time visitor and some of his colleagues in the Music Critics Association of North America to the Florence-of-the-Elbe one fine week in late May (the festival closed June 3). Aside from the banners in the airport and central rail station, it was sometimes hard to know that a festival is going on, – and curiously, none of the productions from the historic flagship of Dresden music, the Saxon State Opera, were included on the schedule.  But within a sampling of events over a span of four days, you could pick up on a representative cross-section of marquee names, youth, oddball repertoire from the past, unusual performing venues, and yes, direct pipelines to Central European musical traditions.  Indeed, the festival this year – as guided by the personable young cellist/Intendant Jan Vogler – was called Herz Europas, or Heart of Europe, or more specifically, music created around the triangle of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.

So with that in mind, one’s attention was naturally drawn first to the two big-name orchestras that were playing on the Semperoper stage during the four-day span – the resident Staatskapelle Dresden – founded in 1548, the orchestra that Schütz, Weber and Wagner conducted, with its chief conductor-designate Christian Thielemann officiating – and those tireless globetrotters, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Thielemann promised only one Germanic masterpiece, Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 8, and Gergiev was to try his hand at Ein Heldenleben by one of Dresden’s best friends, Richard Strauss.

What could be more appropriate for this time and space, one thought – Bruckner’s granitic monument to 19th-century German music, played by one of the world’s oldest German orchestras in one of the most beautiful, venerated German halls, led by a conductor who has proclaimed himself the inheritor of the mantles of Fürtwangler, von Karajan, Böhm, Jochum and company in word and some say, deed. A lot of this wish list would ring true.  The Semperoper takes your breath away when you enter – absolutely gorgeous in its super-ornate, off-white, golden, horseshoe-shaped glory, lovingly restored by the DDR in 1985 and again after the Elbe flood of 2002. The Staatskapelle Dresden played with all the energy and sensitivity you would want, their lithe sound projected clearly and warmly by the hall, the brasses balanced just right against the rest of the group. Not much bass projection, but lots of rear resonance could be picked up – all against a background of near-absolute silence from the audience as if they were held spellbound.

The problem, alas, was Thielemann. He kept fiddling around with fussy details that often disrupted the line, or there were questionable experiments like the strange de-crescendo and crescendo at a crucial rhetorical point in the Scherzo – everything laid out in devastatingly clear detail by the acoustics.  When he left Bruckner alone, the performance could blaze – the finale being best in that regard – but too often, the impact was muted, stunted. Nevertheless, they love Thielemann in Dresden – apparently he was the answer to widespread yearning for a return to German musicmaking after a succession of foreign chief conductors who either died in mid-term (Sinopoli) or resigned over disputes with management (Haitink, Luisi) – and the applause was long and loud.

As for Gergiev, whose breakneck schedule always provokes wonder and exasperation, this concert turned out to be mostly a routine pit stop on the way to wherever.  I’ve never seen this dynamo look so listless and scorebound as he was in this unheroic Heldenleben, his players operating on a high level of auto pilot.  Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin suite had the snarling, rasping Mariinsky brass and other weird sounds but also passages of stasis.  Bravo to the maestro and to Vogler himself for programming Honegger’s barely-known, tuneful, sometimes jazzy, compact Cello Concerto. But it sounded underrehearsed, the multi-tasking Vogler not in prime form, though his encore from a Bach Cello Suite was better-played and uncannily related to passages from the Honegger.  The Mariinsky’s best performance, hands down, was their encore – a beautiful, shimmering, seasoned, Russian specialty of the house, Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake.

Yet over these four days, the most satisfying orchestral performances came not from the brand-name bands, but from the Baltic Youth Philharmonic – in tandem with and apart from the MDR Sinfonieorchester of Leipzig – led by the enterprising Kristjan Järvi, son of Neeme, younger brother of Paavo. They were participating in a marathon concert entitled “All You Can Hear,” starting at 3 p.m. and lasting into the night. The physical conditions were not promising; the concert took place in a large concrete hall within the Messe Dresden with bleacher-style seating and the acoustics of a high-school basketball arena.  Yet the kids – who reportedly had come together only a few days before – did a splendid job with Mahler’s deliciously anachronistic re-orchestrations of movements from the J.S. Bach suites, vigorous and sensitive to dynamics, aided by a few members of the MDR group. With the MDR, Järvi caught the quirky humor of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8; it sounded fast, fresh, startling.

I wish I could have heard the whole program, but I was able to stay long enough to hear a beautifully gauged Baltic Youth performance of another out-of-its-time rarity, the Korngold Violin Concerto, where the wall of reverb worked to the music’s advantage. Violinist Vadim Gluzman really sold the piece, handling everything with incisiveness, emotion, no schmaltz, spotless technique. Ironically another, more-celebrated violinist from the former Soviet Union named Vadim – Repin – was on next at the Kulturpalast, a non-descript, Communist-era monstrosity with a fan-shaped Festsaal that sounds like fan-shaped halls usually do – dull, dry, lifeless, stage-confined.  Repin played like the second coming of Oistrakh the last time I heard him in recital with Nikolai Lugansky four years ago. But here in Prokofiev’s VIolin Concerto No. 2, after a couple of decent movements, he fell apart in the third, forcing his tone (his recording with Kent Nagano and Hallé circa 1995 is less prone to that). The orchestra was Dresden’s No. 2 ensemble, the Philharmonie under Markus Poschner – darkly-colored, hardly a Staatskapelle, but in this hall, what group could sound its best?

The wonderfully Baroque-run-amok Frauenkirche has an even longer reverberation time than the Messe Dresden – I clocked it at roughly four seconds, about twice the optimal timing – and to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in this space was bound to be a, well, unique experience. Actually, the reverberation was so huge, and so disorienting – you could swear some instrument in plain sight in front of you was being played way to the right or left – that it created a sensual pleasure in itself if you sat back and let the sound bounce around you. While the orchestra at first seemed confused by the acoustics, tenor Ian Bostridge sounded great within this space, especially in his upper register, in an all-J.S. Bach program – excerpts from various cantatas and oratorios, the entire Cantata No. 82, and a very fast Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.  If his voice was affected by Dresden’s high pollen count this time of year, it didn’t show.

Then, for another unorthodox concert space, how about Volkswagen’s Transparent Factory on the edge of Dresden’s Grosse Garten?  The Transparent Factory – where VW assembles its sleek, luxury-class Phaeton sedans – is an outstanding example of corporate responsibility with its all-glass walls (a riposte to the old DDR and its all-observing Stasi), architecture that blends into the surrounding park, eco-friendly to the point of protecting neighborhood birds from slamming into the windows (speakers playing tapes of bird calls marking their territory keeps them away). In one corner of the factory, with elevated skeletons of unfinished Phaetons looming oddly overhead, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja executed an impeccably played, cleverly-conceived, tightly-unified program of  Bartók, Kurtág, Ravel and Enescu, bookended by examples of wild gypsy folk dances that inspired them. The space sounded OK, and Kopatchinskaja’s concept seemed to apply the idea of Herz Europas with more imagination than any concert of that weekend.

And yes, there was opera, too, in Saxony that week – if mostly outside the confines of the festival.  Tune in to my next blog posting for a report on that.