The current love affair that the Germans seem to be having with all things British has deep roots. It was Schlegel who first claimed Shakespeare for the German-speaking world when he said that the bard was ‘ganz unser’ (entirely ours). Goethe was equally obsessed. There are now more productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Germany every year than in England, with the advantage that he not only translates unusually closely into German but also that the audiences are hearing him in contemporary language.
Then there is the instinctive German respect for the British sense of humour, which threatens anarchy, but, by some miracle they dare not trust, never quite delivers it. The story of the man who crashed Prince William’s 21st birthday party dressed as Osama bin Laden, who was not only not shot dead on the spot but was also never prosecuted, plays very well here, as did the atmosphere at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which was held to have just the right mix of grandeur and lightness of touch. Even in Dresden, where the scars of one of the most destructive bouts of humour failure ever visited by a nation on an enemy city are still evident, people find the peculiar British balance of discipline, punctiliousness and irreverence fascinating.
Some of this interest has transferred itself to the Dresden Music Festival, at three weeks in length one of the biggest in Europe. Each year its theme is based around the music of a single nation, and this time it has been the turn of the British. What with the innate sympathy just outlined, and the unstinting sponsorship of Volkswagen, here if anywhere was the opportunity to reflect the vibrancy of British musical life. From the outset I wondered if the organisers really intended to expose their public to the scene in all its raw foreignness: the icon on their material unpromisingly shows a red telephone box (of the kind that don’t work any more) on some stones floating in a wide seascape under the word ‘Empire’. The worst resonances of that concept are duly avoided in the attendant publicity through some nifty footwork involving the Saxon court of Augustus the Strong, though one is left in the dark as to how the precisely described negative effects of (in fact British) power and aggression could produce Britten and Elgar, the reputations of whom it was clearly in the interests of the festival to burnish.
The familiar problem that the festival organisers face is that their core audience has quite narrow expectations, a problem exacerbated by the annual need to claim that this year’s festival is more successful than last year’s, with figures to prove it. The moment I arrived, I was locked into the breathless success of it all, everyone I met paying tribute to the huge audiences they were drawing. Looking a little deeper, I discovered that few of the concerts actually involved a British ensemble playing nothing but British music. For example, the headline event at the moment is the upcoming visit of the London Symphony Orchestra. But the publicity for it is centred on its Finnish conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the promised repertoire by Lutoslawski, Beethoven and Stravinsky. The performance of Britten’s War Requiem next Saturday, to be given by the City of Birmingham SO, has so far not sold so well.
The chief beneficiary of this festival has been Britten, whose shorter pieces are to be heard in abundance as starters for the more familiar things to follow. The Berlin SO under Nagano began with his Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, before going on to play Brahms’s First Symphony. The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic played his Lachrymae, before Schubert’s Ninth. The two pieces that best broke this pattern, and which I would have loved to have heard, were Hamilton Harty’s Violin Concerto (Dresden Philharmonic under Marriner) and Jordi Savall playing the anonymous ‘Whoope doe me no harme’.
But perhaps it is churlish to complain that the effort was made, a large and enthusiastic audience being given the occasional chance to hear new things. And Dresden is a wonderful city to make music in. The Tallis Scholars sang (Palestrina) in the astonishing Frauenkirche, until 1993 a poignant ruin, which now perfectly marries glorious acoustics with all the physical attributes of an opera house. It is hard to imagine a space less conducive to worship; but for concerts it is as good as they come.
What surprised me most was that the éminence grise — Richard Wagner — who lived in Dresden at a crucial stage in his life and is celebrating his anniversary this year, was not the headline news, even though there was more music by him on display than by anyone else. But then again the idea that a red telephone box should act as cover for a Wagner fest is very nice.