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How to Spend the Perfect Weekend in Dresden, Germany

How to Spend the Perfect Weekend in Dresden, Germany
Picture of Robert Hugill
Updated: 11 April 2017
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Dresden might be described as the city that rebuilt itself twice. After the fire-bombing during World War Two, the city was re-built under the DDR as the epitome of a socialist city. Whereas Munich devoted much time and money to re-building the historic Residenz and surrounding area following war destruction, in Dresden the historic buildings were generally ignored. Today, however, Dresden is once again embracing its architectural and cultural heritage.
© Robert Hugill 

After the re-unification of Germany there was a general move towards reconstruction and now, over 20 years later, this work is reaching fruition. Dresden’s Frauenkirche is complete again with its amazing plasterwork interior, and the old town around the Frauenkirche has been rebuilt in the original style. The Altmarkt retains some of its 1950s socialist buildings, and the Soviet era Kulturpalast not only remains but is being restored.

Dresden lies on the river Elbe and the heart of the old town is alongside the river. Here you find the Semperoper (the lovely historic opera house designed by Gottfried Semper), the Zwinger (the rococo outdoor entertainment palace built by Augustus the Strong), the picture gallery and the Residenz with the former Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony, now the Catholic Cathedral.

The Residenz was the home of the Electors (and later Kings) of Saxony, rulers of the area and one of the hereditary electors of the Holy Roman Emperor. The key figure in their history is Augustus the Strong (1670 – 1733), who also became King of Poland. The family continued to rule Saxony until 1918, but Augustus is the dominating figure.

© Robert Hugill 

Though World War Two left Augustus’s palace, the Residenz, a burned-out shell, many of his collections remain and form the focus of the restored building. The outside has been returned to its original form, except that the smaller of the two main courtyards has a transparent domed roof thus providing a central focus for visitors. Not all of the rooms have yet been restored, the nine state rooms are awaiting restoration and when we visited contained two temporary exhibitions, a fascinating contemporary exhibition and an exploration of the role of Dionysus in art over the centuries. Almost equally fascinating was seeing the traces of original fabric in among the new build.

Augustus the Strong was famous for his Schatzkammer, literally treasure room but here encompassing a collection of all manner of things made from precious materials. A huge amount has survived the depredations of history. The items were originally displayed in a sequence of rooms, the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault), on the ground floor. These have been reconstructed and are an essential part of any visit (access by timed ticket). Around half the treasures are displayed in these originally rooms in settings which can only be described as 18th century bling: precious objects teeter on gilded brackets against walls of gilded glass. The sight has to be seen to be believed.

© Robert Hugill 

Upstairs you can learn about the reconstruction, and view the remaining half of the collection in modern museum conditions. There is also a print gallery with a superb collection, a series of Turkish rooms containing the items collected during the 18th century fad for all things Turkish, including a pair of elaborate campaign tents. And you get to ascend the Haussmann Tower to see views of the city. To become King of Poland, August the Strong converted to Catholicism and his lovely Roman Catholic Chapel survives complete with bridge to the Residenz so that Augustus did not have to cross the street (the palace also has another bridge to a neighboring palace housing the Elector’s mistress). The palace’s Lutheran chapel is currently being restored.

The Electors and Kings were also great collectors of pictures, so their picture gallery is well worth a visit, with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and paintings by Holbein, Rembrant Rubens, Vermeer, Canaletto and Canaletto’s nephew Bernardo Bellotto. In fact Bellotto visited Dresden and painted it; the pictures make fascinating viewing.

© Robert Hugill 

Close to the picture gallery is the Zwinger, the elaborate rococo parade ground built for elaborate outdoor festivities. A delight in itself, the surrounding buildings are now used to house the amazing Meissen collection. The Meissen porcelain factory is a short distance from Dresden and was controlled by the Electors of Saxony.

But it isn’t all old masters. Along the riverbank are many fine buildings and one is the Albertinum. Built in the 19th century (to replace the old Arsenal), now handsomely restored and containing a collection of 20th century art and the sculpture collection.

Like many German rulers the Electors were compulsive builders so the city is dotted with other significant buildings, including the Japanese Palace and Palais im grossen Garten (whose park now houses VW’s transparent factory in a remarkable combination of ideas). And outside the historic center there survives a remarkably fine collection of 19th century villas.

Dresden’s historic center is compact, so that you can wander round easily. But there is much to see and a long weekend is hardly enough, especially if you want to take it a trip up the river Elbe to see the superb countryside East of Dresden.

© Robert Hugill 

We were in Dresden for the Dresden Music Festival, which runs annually for three weeks from end of May to the beginning of June. The festival director is Jan Vogler, now directing his sixth festival. Vogler’s intention is to bring great performances to Dresden and to utilize the center’s remarkable collection of venues. All within walking distance including the Semperoper, the Residenz, the Albertinum, the Frauenkirche. In all 15 different venues, the most unusual being VW’s Die Gläserne Manufaktur, the transparent factory where VW makes their Phaeton cars. The factory has a visitor center and restaurant, so it is well worth a visit.

The festival is very much designed to bring people to Dresden, combining great music with other cultural experiences. This year’s festival had the theme of the Golden 20’s, not just the 1920’s (Ute Lemper singing 1920’s cabaret), but the 1820’s (Paganini’s duets for violin and piano), 1820’s (Bach’s cello suites), and the 1620’s (Monteverdi’s madrigals) with performers such as Les Arts Florissants, the Mark Morris Dance Group, Matthias Goerne, Daniel Barenboim.

© Robert Hugill 

On Tuesday 27 May we attended a festival concert at Schloss Wackerbarth, an historic winery between Dresden and Meissen. You can tour the lovely historic grounds, have wine tastings and even eat in their restaurant so the place is well worth a visit. The concert took place in the modern glass wine production buildings, so that we attended a concert surrounded by bottling and other equipment. These slightly unusual surroundings provided a lovely acoustic for the program of music for violin and guitar performed by American violinist Karen Gomyo and Finnish guitarist Ismo Eskelinen.

They opened with a pair of baroque sonatas by Antonio Vivaldi and Pietro Antonio Locatelli with Eskelinen playing the basso continuo accompaniment on the guitar. But the main body of the program was a sequence of sonatas that the great 19th century violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini wrote for violin and guitar. The two instruments make an attractive pairing, though some sensitivity is needed to ensure that balance works well. Gomyo and Eskelinen proved a delightful and sympathetic partnership, with Gomyo showing herself fully equal to the fireworks that Paganini provides for the violin. They finished with his variation of The Carnival of Venice which was outrageous fun. But the audience response was so great that we were treated to a pair of movement from Astor Piazolla’s L’Histoire du Tango, a complete contrast but an equal delight.

The next evening we were at the Semperoper in the center of Dresden, which reopened in 1985 after being nearly destroyed in the Second World War. The auditorium is traditional, decorated with fine plasterwork and it is used both for opera and for concerts. We saw a concert by the New York based chamber orchestra, The Knights. Co-founded by brothers Eric and Colin Jacobsen, the group is conducted by Eric Jacobsen with Colin leading. They performed a program which paired music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with more unusual repertoire by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger and American Morton Feldman.

The group performed on the Semperoper’s fore-stage (over the pit), in front of the elaborate drop curtain with its depiction of the nine muses. They use a variation on the traditional orchestral layout, with the strings and woodwind in an arc, which gives the woodwind greater forward presence in the mix. The placing seemed also to help create a sense of chamber music in their playing despite the 30 players.

© Robert Hugill 

They opened with Honegger’s charming Pastorale d’ete, in a lovely performance which conjured up the lazy sense of a warm summer’s evening. Honegger’s sound world is different to that of Delius, but you felt that the work was akin to Delius’s Summer night on the river. Next followed Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, his concerto for piano, violin, and violoncello op. 56 which the composer wrote in 1803 (between the second and third symphonies). The soloists were violinist Colin Jacobsen (the orchestra’s leader), cellist Jan Vogler (the festival’s director) and pianist Antti Siirala. The orchestra has recently recorded with work with the same soloists.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is essentially a concerto for piano trio, and Beethoven has left performers something of a challenge as the three soloists must be capable of listening and performing as a unit, recognizing the moments when their part is in accompaniment. Most importantly, the piano soloist must be aware of the capabilities of the modern piano (as compared to the pianos of Beethoven’s day), and hold back at time to allow the more interesting violin and cello solos.

The performance from Jacobsen, Vogler, Siirala and the Knights was one of the most satisfying performances of the work that I heard in a long time. The three soloists were gave vividly intent accounts of the music, clearly listening and responding to each other. They were very sympathetic to the way that Beethoven writes for the instruments, for instance bringing out the delightful moments when the violin and cello perform in octaves with the piano trading accompanying figures with the orchestra. All three soloists knew when to hold back, and Siirala in particular was a master of the quietly intense phase, so that his playing commanded attention without bluster.

After the interval was a short work by Morton Feldman, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety. Written for just 12 instruments , Felman wrote the piece in 1970 as a memorial to his childhood piano teacher. It is an austere, spare and curiously haunting piece, based around a simple two note figure which is repeated endlessly at different speeds and timings, with varying accompaniment. It could have been boring, but in the hands of The Knights it was moving and mesmerizing.

They concluded with a wonderfully vital and lively account of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Jupiter. It was a wonderfully vivid and impulsive account of the work, replacing massiveness with a sense of dynamic vitality. Though the group played on modern instruments, their sound world with its highly articulated playing and air between the notes was very much historically informed. This was a performance that brought out the vivid joy and sheer delight of music making.

© Robert Hugill 

After the concert we walked over the Augustus Bridge towards the Neustadt and had a late drink and meal at Waztke am Goldenen Reiter; a brew pub (bräuhaus) opposite the golden rider, a gilded statue of Augustus the Strong. Watzke’s serves unfiltered pils and their kitchen stays open till midnight making it ideal for a casual post-theater snack.

The 2014 Dresden Music Festival runs until June 10 with performances by Cameron Carpenter, Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and the Collegium Vocale Ghent to look forward to along with a performance of Richard Strauss’s Feuersnot. Next year the festival runs from 14 May to 8 June 2015, with performances from Valery Gergiev, Nikolaj Znaider and the London Symphony Orchestra, Helen Grimaud, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and Antonio Papano.

© Robert Hugill 

Dresden is a ideal location to combine art, history, culture and music, and not just during the festival. The opera house, the Semperoper, has a fine tradition which it continues with a strong program during the year and in November 2014 they have their Richard Strauss days, celebrating the composer’s anniversary. The Dresden Staatskapelle also gives its concert series in the opera house so there is much to enjoy throughout the year.

Getting to Dresden from London, you can fly direct from London City Airport via CityJet. For more flexibility there are lots of flights to Berlin and a fast bus service, but the drive from Berlin to Dresden takes in some interesting historic areas if you have time. Arriving at Dresden Airport, there is an urban train service (S2) to the city center which costs under three euros, quite a bargain.

We stayed at the historic Schloss Eckberg, based in one of three 19th century castles high on the ridge above the river Elbe, east of the city center. The hotel combines a romantic location with a wonderful 19th century Gothic castle and a modern hotel. There are historic rooms in the castle and more inexpensive rooms in the nearby Kavaliershaus. Dresden’s excellent transport system meant that taking the tram to the center was easy. For those who want something more central the Art’Otel Dresden combines a central location a short walk from the Zwinger, with a modern stylish interior with lots of contemporary art, as its name suggests.

By Robert Hugill

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