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Notes from the 2012 Dresden Music Festival ( 1 )

I am in beautiful Dresden – birthplace of the bra – for the annual three-week Music Festival that has taken place since 1978. Embarrassingly, I knew nothing about it until I randomly ran into its head of PR, a Munich acquaintance, at the Barbican last year. Now I am making sweet amends.

From May 15th until June 3rd the Festival offers a varied lineup of star attractions (Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart under Daniel Barenboim) and newcomers (Dalia Dedinskaitė), insider favorites and the tried-and-true who appear in a host of locations all over Dresden. The program is equally varied; perhaps a little on the safe side but with plenty cleverly delectable moments: Smetana and Pavel Haas string quartets (by the splendid Pavel Haas Quartet) in the neoclassical Albrechtsberg Castle high up on the south bank of the Elbe. The early music punks L’Arpeggiata around Theorbo-rocker Christina Pluhar in the brand new historic Frauenkirche. At Radebeul’s Wackerbarth Castle Muzsikás, the Hungarian folk group that I remember well from their appearances at the Freer Gallery with the Takács Quartet. And yesterday the very reason for arriving as soon as I could, fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout (whose Mozart topped my Best of 2011 list) with an all Mozart program in the wonderfully dilapidated, partially restored Summer Palace in Dresden’s Großer Garten.

The select state of decay of the large barren hall in the piano nobile of the Palais makes it hard to tell if certain bits of it had remained escaped destruction, or whether some parts had been restored before the money ran out, or whether it’s an ingenious renovation scheme that deliberately juxtaposes decay and splendor, the newly restored and the authentically destroyed. Whichever it may be1, it’s a brilliant space perched above the Great Garden which is visible through windows on all four sides.

On a raised platform at the South-Western end of the hall stood a 30 year old copy of a Paul McNulty-built 1792 Anton Walter fortepiano, gorgeously restored and fresh on its third soundboard. Behind it two of originally four faux-marble Corinthian columns remain intact, a third a tall stump with the capital missing and the broken plaster at the bottom exposing the wood underneath. On it – the platform – Bezuidenhout showed the instrument’s ability off in the brisk but beautifully clear Allegro assai of Mozart’s F-major Sonata K332, with all notes appearing like a little organically shaped pearls, delicately separated, no matter at what speed Bezuidenhout dashed them off. But that the fortepiano – a good sounding one, that is – has merits all around and not just at high speeds where it enjoys a natural, physical advantage over the modern grand piano, was amply demonstrated in the preceding Adagio. The little instrument with the knee levers has a round, fresh, and fully functional sound. (You’d think the latter be a given with any professionally used instrument – alas, too many crummy fortepianos have been used in the past, and their deficiencies praised as the somehow admirable twang and clatter of authenticity.)

If Mozart’s Variations are not taken all that seriously, perhaps that’s because they are not the convenient fillers in the LP and CD age, a fact that has helped Beethoven’s Variations – at least those for Cello and Piano – to a modicum of fame. In any case, their neglect seems to be in direct contrast to their musical merit – by which I mean: entertainment value. I absolutely love the “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” Variations, and the ten “Unser dummer Pöbel meint” Variations on Gluck’s theme from The Pilgrims from Mecca follow close on their heels. They were next on the program and the lively variety and variance of Bezuidenhout’s Variation-game should have made lots of new friends for the work. Stately, busy, lustily-heavy, saucy, flamboyant: there was something in there for everyone.

The Fantasie in c-minor K475 had a dramatic air about it, like a looming thunderstorm with its pregnant silences: Superficially mellifluous like a deceptively calm and deep rivulet, and with the raw bite of the forte piano’s refusal to smooth anything over. In the end the storm passed by, a few miles away, but the proto-Beethovenian qualities of this Fantasia remained present to the end. The tender-lively B-flat Sonata K.333 closed the recital in muted beauty, with a chorus of birds outside still happily participating, despite it being a little past avian bedtime.

1 The second version is more or less the correct one, and restoration continues piecemeal as the funds can be raised.