Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dresden Fest II: Beethoven's Eroica at the Frauenkirche

Frauenkirche Church with Martin Luther statue in Dresden, Germany
REVIEW: Dresden Music Festival 2017, Part II

Dresden, Germany

As the headliner for its final outing of the 40th season, the Dresden Music Festival's in-house orchestra and conductor Ivor Bolton chose the iconic Eroica Symphony of Beethoven. The choice was significant. BBC Music magazine's survey of world conductors this past September announced the Eroica as the greatest symphony of all time. Composed in 1803, it was Beethoven’s breakthrough work, serving as both a personal catharsis for his hearing loss and music’s most powerful anthem for revolution and social change in early 19th century Europe.

Dresden’s venerable Frauenkirche Lutheran church was the much anticipated concert venue. Designed by master architect George Bähr, it was constructed between 1726 and 1743, the peak professional years of two musical titans associated with Saxony, J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel. Called the “Stone Bell,” the Frauenkirche's large rotunda thrusts up 96 meters and is capped by a massive dome. It is one of the crown jewels of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther's lofty statue stands in the town square directly in front of it. But history was to be cruel to the Frauenkirche. It was completely destroyed by Allied bombing in the waning months of the Second World War. Reconstructed with donations from around the world and opened again in 2005, it now serves as a potent symbol for the horrors of war and the reconciliation of former enemies.

The Reformation's five hundredth anniversary came a day before this concert. The intensity, grand scale, and lofty aspirations of Beethoven's Eroica seemed a fitting statement for that moment. The work's significance had been highlighted in an earlier panel discussion among four top German music critics, each taking one movement to compare notable recordings.

I would like to report the performance itself a success. Alas, the collaboration of church and symphony proved problematic. Although I have heard fine chamber performances here in past years, the reverberant, quirky space, glorious to the eye, was not designed for the dense textures of symphonies. Beethoven’s mercurial harmonies and instrumental colors sounded cacophonous, blurred, unbalanced, and selectively displaced, as if by malevolent magic, to regions where no players were present. Particularly disorienting were the harmonic resolutions. With the Frauenkirche’s sound decay a full six seconds, Beethoven’s loud dominant chords smothered their softer tonic resolutions.

Still, the orchestra labored on, especially the strings, as if their lives depended on it. The baton-less Bolton had a fine sense of the work’s architecture and ensured its propulsion. Good turns were put in by all, with woodwinds and brass registering well enough under the circumstances. But, in the din, strings were just so much inaudible gauze. Fierce timpani strokes were heard not from the front, but from behind, their pings ponging at the back wall of the chamber. Likewise, the horns sounded as not from their seats on the right, but from the opposing wall on the left. The results unintentionally mocked the earlier panel discussion on performance subtleties in recordings. In terms of performance ideals, it was a night to write home about, but for all the wrong reasons.

Viewed from another perspective, however, the arranged marriage of the Eroica and the Frauenkirche, like many such among Dresden’s historic royal families, had to do with larger considerations than just the compatibility of two protagonists. Beethoven’s blazing musical journey to artistic truth emitting from Dresden’s monument to the Reformation served as powerful musical analog for mankind’s messy struggle to achieve dignity, self-determination, and enlightenment.

In that regard, I was reminded of the life story of a former colleague, Austrian conductor Herbert Zipper. Imprisoned at Dachau in the 1930’s, he composed the music for the prisoner's defiant Dachaulied (Dachau Song). Zipper's family was able to free him just before the camps were closed for good, but the song's poet, Jura Soyfer, would lose his life at Buchenwald. Escaping Europe, Zipper joined his fiancé in the Philippines and became the chief conductor of the Manila Symphony. But with the invading Japanese Army, the orchestra was shut down and Zipper put under house arrest. At war’s end, following a promise made to himself in a dark moment,  Zipper obtained support from General McArthur to perform a concert at Manila's bombed-out Santa Cruz church, its ceiling open to the sky. He cobbled together what was left of his musicians and their instruments, many salvaged from the horrific fires of the Allied bombing of Manila, equivalent in many areas to the similar destruction of Dresden. Missing were the orchestra's concertmaster, the leader of its woodwinds, and its two finest horn players, all killed in the war. On May 10, 1945, Zipper and his rag-tag company performed two symphonies, Beethoven’s Eroica and Dvorak's New World. What these works must have sounded like was immaterial; what they represented was everything.

Back at the Frauenkirche, the evening's fare had also included works by Wagner and Strauss. As opener, veteran mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier offered a tasteful rendition of Richard Strauss’s valedictory Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). Her modulated vocals in these works of fragile intimacy, surrounded by Strauss’s lush orchestrations, were mostly swallowed in the church’s acoustic. Successful, however, was the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep), where Waltraud’s voice was able to soar above and reach through the orchestra. Wagner’s overture to his early opera Rienzi came across even better. Unlike the denser lacings of the Beethoven and Strauss, the crudely effective curtain-opener withstood the quirky but proud church rotunda, where Germany's "Father of Music," Heinrich Schütz, is remembered with a brass scroll on its stone floor.

Waltraud Meier, Ivor Bolton and Dresden Festival Orchestra in the Frauenkirche Church

Some weeks before I arrived in Dresden, the Festival Orchestra had given a concert at the city’s newly renovated Kulturpalast. The former eye-sore relic of German Democratic Republic modernism had just been handsomely re-skinned, its interior also renovated. That preservation seems to this observer an open-hearted sign of Dresden’s willingness to embrace, rather than erase, its post-war experience. Reports of the renovation suggest it has been successful, with its acoustics on a comparable level to other European concert halls. 

The renovation of the Kulturpalast also has symbolic significance. In explaining the Festival’s overall theme this year of 'Light', Vogler at one point invoked the term Lichtgestalten (“torch bearers”) -- those who lead the distressed out of fear and ignorance into richer illuminations of human experience. Taking a tarnished relic from the GDR and realizing the good intentions within it suggested to me a generous inclusiveness over a triumphalist exclusion. Dresden had picked itself up after its horrible devastation and uneasy later occupation and made things better.

That is a fitting model for any society to emulate.


Dresdener Musikfestspiele, 40 Jubiläum
Frauenkirche, June 10, 2017 - 8pm.
Dresdner Festspieorchester, Ivor Bolton, Director 
Waltraud Meier, mezzo soprano

Photos: Ruth and Rodney Punt

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