Danielle de Niese, Ivor Bolton and The Philharmonics score a hit
If the conductor Ivor Bolton hadn’t already been invented, he’d have been created by Anthony Trollope! His jovial, enthusiastic stage presence would be perfect for a Barchester vicar – he even dresses in a black, rather ecclesiastical jacket – who confounds opinion with razor-sharp instincts. He was a perfect choice to lead the newly created Dresden Festival Orchestra, a period-instrument ensemble that draws on Europe’s finest (AAM, ORR, Vienna Concentus Musicus, Il giardino armonico, Orchestra of the 18th Century and others) to give the Festival its own ensemble. (If Frau Merkel ever tires of trying to whip Europe into shape, Bolton’s her man!)
I suspect nobody quite knew what to expect but Bolton, with Giuliano Carmignola as leader, brought this disparate group together and created something exceptional. With players like Mary Utiger, Eric Hoeprich and Michael Niesemann among the line-up, there was a pretty good chance of success, but in a programme that ranged from Naumann to Beethoven, the Festival Orchestra delivered in spades.
Of course having Danielle de Niese as soloist never does any harm and she delivered a two-composer, two-frock performance with real style. Adorned in a very slinky, black number, split dangerously high, she sang a couple of numbers from Johann Gottlieb Naumann’s Acis and Galathea with terrific verve – and her charms, both vocal and visual, weren’t lost on the audience. She returned after the interval – in silver this time – for Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate. I’m not sure whether the composer envisaged such a sexy performance but de Niese obliged (it was rather as if she was thinking of the words of ‘Glitter and be Gay’ and singing the Exsultate – however she did it, it worked!).
A little symphony by WF Bach and a Haydn violin concerto (played very elegantly by Carmignola) filled put the first half and demonstrated how quickly this fledgling band had acquired a personality. But the real fireworks and thrills were saved for the end, an absolutely terrific performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, that consummately assured entry into a genre Beethoven would soon dominate – and all these years later still dominate. It was also a reminder of how far period performance has come in the past handful of decades. This was a real interpretation, beautifully shaped and palpably energised, and even upstaged the singing that had gone before. I hope that next year, this Festival Orchestra becomes a genuinely fixture of the festival – it could do so much.
The evening concert, back at the enchanting Palais im Grossen Garten, was a good-humoured affair served up with lashings of energy and style by The Philharmonics, a string quintet with piano and clarinet and comprising some of the classiest orchestral players from the Berlin and Vienna Phils plus a couple of Slovak friends. This was café music done with great flair and ranged from Jewish melodies (a rather lovely little confection drawn from Mahler) to Lehár favourites to Hungarian dances. It fitted the ‘Herz Europas’ theme of the festival like a glove and while we in the UK have lost touch with our Palm Court tradition, central Europe still retains in its soul the spirit of the café ensembles and the fusion of high art and light music. (The Philharmonics have recorded an album for DG though I suspect it won’t officially appear in the UK – a shame!)
And then…Dresden’s art! There is so much that a week could barely do it justice. There’s such a staggering array on display at the Zwinger gallery besides the celebrated Raphael Madonna and Child that gave the world and thousands of greetings cards the two cute cherubs. There are a couple of glorious Vermeers, more Rembrandts than seem entirely healthy, and room after room of superb German, Italian and Dutch art. It’s overwhelming! And if you’ve always hankered to see many of Caspar David Friedrich’s most famous works, they’re in the Albertinum – a magnet to visitors and still beautifully conceived in their symbol-laden stillness (what would DG’s LP sleeve designers have done without Friedrich during the 1970s and ‘80s?). And if you crave something a litle more 'of our time', there are some fabulous Gerhard Richters in a whole range of different media.
As a city Dresden has been transformed in the past decade and a half, and besides the faux Baroque architecture, so much has been restored and rebuilt with an amazing feeling for the original that it's genuinely impossible tell what has been reconstructed. And with a music festival, to attract the music-lover, it's well worth adding to the 'to do' list!
James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter; he also hosts some Saturday afternoon shows. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.