Review of Northern Europe Tour July – August 2019

Sally and I both feel our tour to  Munich, Wiesbaden, Bruges and Stockholm has been our most enjoyable yet, despite it being the 13th tour I have led since starting to lead fine music tours six years ago.

Partly it was due to the fascinating places we visited and the consistently outstanding standard of the performances we attended, but the main reason was the company we kept! If we didn’t all know each other at the start, it wasn’t long before we were a true band of brothers and sisters and I think we all felt sad when we parted and went our separate ways. As the organisers, it is a true delight to have gathered around us such a friendly group who enjoyed each other’s company so much.In this blog (which I am writing mostly from memory in the weeks following the tour) I am not attempting to give much detail, but simply my take on most of the things we did and the music we saw and heard. Inevitably the experiences we have in these tours come tumbling over each other in a rush so some guide posts of what happened are here to remind you of what we did so it doesn’t stay as a blur.

MUNICH

We checked in, some of us a day or three earlier, at a very nice and rather trendy hotel in the middle of town called the Anna. On our first night we gathered in an elegant old apartment owned by a hospitable couple called Hope and Nick, friends of Sue England and her partner Peter Astheimer whom we met and befriended on board the Queen Mary when we crossed the Atlantic last December. Sue is English but for several years has lived and worked in Munich, a city she loves and where she met Peter. Hope gave us a great smorgasbord of nibbles, drinks and a huge and tasty plum tart. Sue told us about Munich’s galleries and where we should shop.

In the morning Sue’s friend John Langton, who works part-time as a guide, took us on a tour of  the city which helped to orientate us. Our indispensable tour manager, Claudia then led us to the Zum Franziskaner restaurant for our Welcome lunch in a private room where they served a delicious mushroom soup plus fish and an elegant desert.

On the way back to the hotel, I led some of us to the exquisite Cuvilléstheater, a tiny rococo 18th century lyric theatre in horseshoe shape with several levels of boxes and orchestra pit that is still operated by the Bavarian State Opera for intimate opera productions. I last saw Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte there in the 1960s. Everyone was captivated by the theatre and I vowed to bring a group here when a suitable opera is playing!

That evening we attended the Prinzregententheater, a medium sized opera theatre built in 1901 specifically to perform Wagner’s operas. It’s no surprise that in many ways it looks like a smaller version of Wagner’s Bayreuth. One of the world’s leading singers specialising in German lieder (song), Christian Gerhaher, was to sing Schubert’s great song cycle Schwanengesang, but a week or two out he decided to substitute a challenging program of songs by Brahms, Mussorgsky and Britten. For a lover of Schubert songs, like me, this was disappointing, but what made me really cross was his decision to sing everything except some of the Brahms songs from a score. Obviously he was not fully prepared, a really unacceptable situation for a recital at an international festival. I discussed this with Thomas Schuback who played for us in our last concert in Stockholm. He has played around the world with many great singers and agrees it is a totally unacceptable practice when the singer should be engaging visually and dramatically with the audience. However he also said it happened quite often these days, a deplorable practice in his opinion.

The next day, Tuesday, Sue and Peter led us by train on an excursion to a magnificent baroque palace and garden in the country near Munich called Oberschleissheim. It matches Versailles in scale and dwarfs Vienna’s Belvedere. We strolled through the gardens and the palace on a hot day, had lunch in the shaded beer garden and returned for a walk needed snooze before our first opera.

Oberschleissheim

Claudia had secured us wonderful seats close to the stage for Barrie Kosky’s production of Handel’s early opera Agrippina. The ingenious set, a black see-through structure that transformed in many ways, allowed a brilliantly funny and athletic production of this cynical piece superbly sung and played on period instruments with fabulous singing by Franco Fabiola, Elsa Benoit, Alice Coote and Iestyn Davies conducted by Ivor Bolton. Amazing that in the right hands, a 300 year old opera can be so relevant to modern audiences.

At Lenbachhaus, Munich

On Wednesday morning we visited the Lenbachhaus, Munich’s art museum devoted largely to an incomparable collection of paintings by Kandinsky, Marc, Macke and others from the Blaue Reiter school of artists. With Wagner’s Mastersingers starting at 4 pm and proceeding for 5 hours, a rest beforehand was needed before rolling up to the Nationaltheater, the largest and probably the most lavishly fitted out theatre in Europe, all in pink, pale blue and gold. Our seats were not so good, towards the back of the stalls, but the acoustics are excellent and the orchestral sound splendid. The director David Boesch chose to set it in the late 1950s in the midst of a drab contentious era with the threat of violence always looming, a world away from the medieval splendour of Nuremberg. Unlike Agrippina the previous night, the updating didn’t work at all, at all points missing the wonderful human comedy of the opera. The Mastersingers was notoriously Hitler’s favourite opera and its anti-Semitic undertones and its paean to “Holy German Art” have bothered many during the last 80 years but presenting it with a dreary and pessimistic tone is so antipathetic to the reality and deep sentiments of life’s lessons, as well as being totally anti-theatrical.

WIESBADEN (RHEINGAU FESTIVAL)

We took a train to Frankfurt and then a private coach to Wiesbaden, the main centre of the Rheingau Festival. It’s an old spa town near the westward curve of the Rhine: clean, well laid-out with lovely parks and gardens though sadly our three days there didn’t seem to allow time to wander in them. Our hotel the Schwarzer Bock was a rambling old place with endless wide and high corridors but exceptionally spacious and comfortable rooms. At least ours was.

On the second day Claudia had organised a trip to Mainz, the sister city on the other side of the Rhine. We had a lovely guide who spoke flawless English and had a nice sense of humour. The tour around the city was a great pleasure and we finished up in the historic main square on market day for lunch, just in time to be totally drowned in a sudden downpour that transformed the square into a rushing river. 

Both our concerts at the Rheingau festival were located a half hour drive in our coach to the west of the city along the Rhine to Schloss Johannisberg, a splendid 18th century complex on the top of a hill with wonderful views of the countryside in every direction. It also happens to be the location of one of Germany’s most illustrious vineyards originally owned by the Metternich family of Austrian diplomatic fame. On arrival at the Schloss, we were ushered in by a charming festival host who went on to announce our presence to the audience before the concert started. We felt very honoured: a nice touch that other festivals might emulate. Before and during the intervals of both our concerts, we strolled with our drinks in the elegant gravel courtyard and in the superb garden terrace with vineyards stretching down the hillsides. It all felt very special, not unlike strolling the gardens of Glyndebourne.

Again our seats were close to the front and our artist was the French pianist Lise de la Salle. She played a hugely demanding program of two late Beethoven sonatas and a swag of Liszt’s most testing pieces. She is young, about 30, and clearly had a most dedicated and uncompromising approach to her playing, no frills and polite smiles only for the enthusiastic audience. The Liszt pieces were played with great panache and a huge range of sound colour, while the Beethoven sonatas, which I know well, were superbly played and full of a rare insight into the music.

On the Saturday, we caught another local train to Rudesheim, a bit further along the Rhine than Schloss Johannisberg, for a boat trip down the Rhine as far as St Goarshausen, a couple of hours of the greatest enjoyment along one of the most scenic stretches of the great river on a gorgeous warm sunny day. The train took us back to Wiesbaden for a rest before the second concert at Schloss Johannisberg. 

The second concert was very different in style and sound. It was another recital, this time for violin and piano, played by eminent violinist Isabelle Faust and Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, and completely devoted to Mozart violin sonatas. They played on period instruments, he on a copy of an early fortepiano of Mozart’s time. The sound was soft and delicate, utterly unlike the style and sound of modern instruments. Hearing this in a small concert hall, rather than a recording was for me a revelation as we rarely hear playing in this style and of this quality in Australia. An evening of Mozart sonatas is not normally high on the wish list, but in this case the purity and virtuosity of their playing gave the sonatas a completely different aspect. 


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