Dresden Festival

Jonas Kaufmann and Christian Thielemann celebrate Wagner's bicentenary in the historic German city

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Dresden may be only a modest-sized city of half a million souls, but it can boast an astonishing musical history. The story of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the orchestra which also serves as the pit band in the Semperoper, stretches back to the days of Heinrich Schütz. Weber and Wagner conducted the orchestra, and Wagner actually lived longer in Dresden than anywhere else. If you visit Dresden you can do a 'Wagner walk', which includes the church tower where he spent a night on the look-out for Prussian troops in the Dresden uprising. On one side of the Neumarkt is the Hotel Saxe where Schumann's Piano Concerto was premiered, on the other the spot where Chopin once spent a 'night of love' as the tourist guides put it.

Both buildings vanished in the terrible bombing of Dresden in the closing days of the war. The Hotel Saxe has been rebuilt, stone-for-stone, with loving attention to detail, like the whole of the inner city. It's a moving sight for a British visitor, especially as the Dresdeners make us so welcome, and make it clear that they harbour no ill-feelings. In fact this year the Dresden Music Festival, directed by cellist Jan Vogler, has a strong British flavour. The festival's ostensible theme is how Empire in general has affected the spread of musical styles, and the British Empire was made to loom largest. But in fact the Imperial theme has been muted. It's Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and Violin Sonata the Dresdeners have been treated to, not Crown of India or Pomp and Circumstance (and a huge success Gerontius was too. Perhaps Elgar's oratorios do export after all). The Tallis Scholars have been here too, and Ivor Bolton, directing a very impressive period pick-up band, the Dresden Festspielorchester. One gets the sense that, having grasped a hot political potato, the festival put it down again very quickly.

In fact there was another, in the shape of Richard Wagner. This is his bicentenary year, and the Dresden Festival couldn't let that pass without a homage to its most famous adopted son. One of the most interesting ones came from pianist Louis Lortie, who played a programme of Wagner transcriptions interspersed with readings from the great man's letters and essays. Wagner's prose soon escaped the grasp of my very shaky German, but the words were music to my ears, thanks to the eloquent reading of actress of Marie Baumer. And Lortie's way of suggesting an orchestral grandeur through the piano was spellbinding.

Naturally the main focus has been on the earlier works associated more-or-less with Wagner's Dresden years. On Tuesday night Christian Thielemann, the Staatskapelle's principal conductor, led a performance of Wagner's early oratorio Das Liebesmahl der Apostel (The Love-feast of the Apostles). Last Monday came something truly stirring, a concert of arias from Rienzi, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin sung by tenor Jonas Kaufmann, interspersed with orchestral music from the same operas from the Staatskapelle under Thielemann. It was fascinating to witness two such different artists side-by-side. Kaufmann seems born to the role of a knight who aspires to the good while being tempted by the flesh. Listening to that lovely tenor sound, ringing yet too suggestive of inwardness to be called 'heroic tenor', one knew which side would win the battle.

How complicated Thielemann seemed in comparison. He has no time for ideas about 'letting the music speak for itself'. He grasps and moulds it with an imperiousness the Master himself would surely have admired. One had a sense he wanted to wring the significance from every passing mood, so that even Wagner's jovial bourgeois moments (as in The Flying Dutchman overture) seemed somehow weighty, as if placed on a pedestal. Sometimes he micro-managed, sometimes he became almost indulgently free-and-easy, but in these latter episodes you knew that any moment he would seize control again, not always at the moments you would expect. It was never comfortable, and always riveting.

For an encore the Staatskapelle's own choir appeared among us, looking festive in red sashes. 'The Entry of the Guests' from Tannhäuser rang out, and the moment it ended a great 'bravo!' rang out. One had the rare experience of a German audience celebrating something very German, without embarrassment. It was a touching moment.

Ivan Hewett

The June issue of BBC Music Magazine – on sale now – celebrates the life and work of Richard Wagner. You can download the magazine for iPad/iPhone, and for Android devices from the Google Play store.

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