‘Unsterblicher Nachrühm Friedrich August’: Serenata on the Death of Augustus the Strong, TVW 4:7
Simone Kermes (soprano)Netta Ør (soprano)
Lothar Odinius (tenor)
Marcel Beekman (tenor)
Stephan Genz (bass)
Daniel Ochoa (bass)
Reinhard Goebel (conductor)
Dresden’s Palm Sunday concerts – this Monday concert was a repeat of the previous night’s performance – have a distinguished pedigree indeed. Wagner’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are the stuff of legend; indeed, it was following that of 1849 that the itinerant Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin approached the conductor, announcing: ‘if all music were to be lost in the coming world conflagration, we should risk our own lives to preserve this symphony’. Shortly the opera house would be in flames, Bakunin and Wagner heavily involved in the uprising. Nothing quite so dramatic has ensued in 2014, though perhaps there is still time.
Since the Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann acquired their residency at the Salzburg Easter Festival, that has necessitated a smaller-scale presence in Dresden over Holy Week, and the decision has been made to explore works from Dresden’s Baroque heyday. Reinhard Goebel conducted a work which, whilst not actually written for Dresden, has a strong connection, as a work of mourning for the Saxon king, Augustus the Strong, by Telemann. An as yet unexplained peculiarity – not the only one – of the work is that it was written not for Dresden, but for Hamburg, first performed in May 1733, under the direction of the composer, most likely with singers from the Hamburg Opera. In an interesting programme note accompanying the performance, Karl Böhmer speculates on possible trading and political reasons for Hamburg’s somewhat belated commemoration; so far, however, as I can ascertain, we do not know.
The work itself is not a conventional work of mourning. It seems to begin as such, but soon becomes more of a celebratory commemoration, in the form of one of those allegorical discussions between Saxony, Time, Majesty, and so on, so beloved of the Baroque and often so strange to modern ears and minds. The opening is striking: a lengthy first part to the Sinfonia for trumpets and kettledrums (here sounding in notably ‘period’ guise) alone. Antiphonally performed, with groups on either side of the stage, this offered some of the most funereal music, string eventually joining in not un-Handelian fashion. There is relative sadness, to both this and the opening chorus, but nothing akin to what we might have expected from Handel or Purcell, let alone Bach. Telemann remains competent rather than inspired.
The relative simplicity of the music was not matched, however, by Goebel’s flailing around: often a distraction, though a distraction the orchestra generally seemed to ignore. Likewise apparent attempts to have the strings withdraw vibrato and so on: they worked for a while, then we heard something closer to the deep and richly toned Staatskapelle Dresden we know and love. Obbligato instruments took the best of their opportunities to shine, for instance a fruity bassoon in the aria of ‘Die Zeit’, ‘Ich stürze die irdischen Götter vom Throne’, a relatively – here a constant qualification – furious number. String echoes of Saxony’s voice in ‘Das Inbegriff von meiner Erden’ were nicely done: attractive in sub-Purcellian fashion. Likewise the string swagger of ‘Prange nur, auf stölzen Hügeln’, from ‘Die Majestät’.It was striking, moreover, to hear clarinets in music of this vintage, the pair of instruments in ‘Des Friedens holde Stille’ bubbling away in rather a lovely vein.
The extraordinary aspect of this performance, however, was the contribution of Simone Kermes (Sachsen). Anything but funereal, she sported something akin to an eighteenth-century sky-blue apotheosis of a dress, mysteriously cut away at the front. Much of her singing seemed to fit her outfit rather than Telemann’s serenata. Something approaching hysteria was reached in her first number, but it was only at the end that something more akin to sexual ecstasy seemed to have been reached. Clearly there is great vocal facility here, but for those of us who find the likes of Cecilia Bartoli unbearably mannered, this was something else again: closer to performance art than performance. That might not matter so much, did it not prevent Kermes from sustaining a line. Otherwise, the soloists were more conventional. Lothar Odinius nodded somewhat – if less so – towards camp, but the rest, one was grateful, played it straight. Especially impressive to my mind was Daniel Ochman (Die Grossmut), who even managed to deliver lengthy accompagnato recitative with great conviction and musicality, rewarded with a tuneful, again quasi-Handelian aria, ‘Die Macht zum Gebieten und Schrecken besitzen’. It was something of a relief to hear the four-part protestation, ‘Nein, rühme dich nur keener Güte’; recitative-aria etc. can become quite wearisome when the music is less than top-notch. The chorus of Saxon inhabitants does not have much to do, but did it well. In the final chorus, I was a little surprised by Goebel’s grandiloquent closing ritardando: just the sort of thing he and his ilk for which used to take performers of the past to task. Whatever the ‘authenticity’ or otherwise, it worked – as did this interesting performance as a whole.