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Bach, Death, and Antihistamines

Notes from the 2012 Dresden Music Festival ( 4 )

I am in beautiful Dresden – birthplace of magnetic tape – for the annual three-week Music Festival that has taken place since 1978. After Mozart-delight, Bach-despair, and Malkovichean divertissement, it was time for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Ian Bostridge to showcase Bach in Dresden’s bombed-out and privately [!], recently re-built Frauenkirche.

The splendor of the ornately catholic-looking Frauenkirche is almost too neat, too clean, to develop all its potentially astonishing effect. There is a hint of artificiality about it in our minds, because the aesthetic of the new is incongruent with our expectations of the historic. Habit has turned the ravages of time, historical wear and tear, an essential, rather than incidental element of anything historic. Not unlike we believe, despite knowing better, that both World Wars were fought in black and white, and how it just feels right that Greek statues appear elegantly white, hewn of pure marble – rather than in their original garish colors.

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, BWV 82 & Arias,
I.Bostridge / F.Biondi / Europa Galante
Virgin Classics

From all over the church’s tiers and rafters heads poked out to peer at the OAE warming up with a professionally elated Brandenburg Concerto No.4, Rachel Beckett and Anthony Robson on recorder, the determined-looking Kati Debretzeni fiddling bracingly, and Steven Devine in their midst, leading unobtrusively from the harpsichord.

The contortions Ian Bostridge achieves with his face are in direct contrast to his otherwise perfectly natural demeanor. When he declared to dedicate his performance of Bach’s Cantata “Ich habe genug” (BWV 82, transposed to fit) to the memory of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a famous exponent of the work, he looked like an electrified chicken channeling the anguish of all the world’s poultry farms. And perhaps that of pollen allergy sufferers, too. It didn’t keep him from performing in his impeccable, beautiful, and hyper-correct way that is lovely to listen to and rather boring to write about.

Death, and a sweet longing for it, were the underlying theme of the night, and after the whole of BWV 82, a series of darkly-beautiful arias followed, interspersed with the instrumental Sinfonias from Cantatas BWV 169 and 35. Mr. Devine, like a little musical bear, lead the OAE buoyantly from the organ and flinched with humored self-annoyance when he hit wrong keys. It has become de rigueur for any self-respecting original instrument band to have their own, perfectly ahistorical (in Bach, at least) theorbo – and so does the OAE. But then it’s just too good-looking an instrument not to include one in the basso continuo section. Bostridge went from impeccable to positively moving in his last two arias (“Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” from the Easter Oratorio and “Zerschmettert mich” from the St John Passion), and the encored “Bist du bei mir” (BWV 508) was – appropriately – to die for and so poignant, who cares it’s not by Bach: A perfect opportunity to end the evening with quiet appreciation, but the wildly applauding majority in the Frauenkirche felt differently about that.

Picture of Ian Bostridge and Steven Devine courtesy Dresden Music Festival, © Oliver Killig

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