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Arts & Culture

Summer on the Rhine: The Rheingau Music Festival

Three years ago, Classical 91.7’s Dean Dalton, host of our Houston Symphony broadcasts, retired from his position as Director of Cultural Programming and now divides each year between homes in Houston and the Transylvania region of Romania.  He spends each summer visiting music and cultural festivals throughout Europe and here reports on his recent trip to the Rheingau Music Festival…


Although the Rheingau Music Festival is one of Europe’s longest, running two full months, from late June through late August; richest, offering more than 150 performances in more than 40 venues all over the region; and most diverse, with events from early music through world music and jazz to symphonic and choral concerts featuring such big names as Yo-Yo Ma, Elina Gagranca, the Royal Philharmonic, Munich Symphony, Herbert Blomstedt, Paavo Järvi, and more, it ranks lower on the radar screens of American music lovers than the region’s elegant Riesling wines do on those of American wine aficionados. 

The Rheingau is a small area, less than an hour from Frankfurt, along a 25-mile stretch where the Rhine River takes a left turn due west, slowing and spreading to almost a mile in width, before narrowing again as it heads northward to the sea through the narrow, winding “Middle Rhine Valley” famous for its medieval castles.

The gentle, vine-covered hills of the Rheingau rise along the north side of the river behind a narrow strip of flat land populated by a string of villages.  Protected from winter winds by the Taunus Mountains and warmed by the sun reflecting off the surface of the river, the area is blessed by a microclimate that allows not only grapes but all manner of Mediterranean vegetation to thrive; it is sometimes called “The Tuscany of the North.”

The Rheingau Music Festival was established in the 1980s, taking advantage of the area’s picturesque massive Romanesque monasteries, intimate gothic parish churches, through baroque palaces, to the ballrooms of 19th-century spas.  Although some of its programs feature star-status headliners, most draw on the wealth of less-well-known but nonetheless first-rate artists available throughout Europe.

Compared to many festivals, ticket prices are moderate and most of the audience is comprised not of the designer suit and evening gown crowd converging from far and wide, but ordinary music-lovers from the surrounding areas. I don’t think I spotted a single American beyond the small group I was traveling with at any of the concerts!  Those five performances, in the span of as many days, provide a good example of the kinds of things the Rheingau Festival offers . . . at least on the classical side.

Three of the concerts I took in were at Schloss Johannisberg, a former monastery converted to a princely estate following secularization offering a commanding view of the vineyards and river below.  Pianist Oleg Maisenberg offered a recital of infrequently heard music from Russia, where he was born and trained.

Following two meditative pieces by Tchaikovsky, to both set the mood and establish context, the first half of Maisenberg’s program was turned over exclusively to Scriabin, offering an unexpected view of his intimate, lyrical side.  In contrast, several of Shostakovich’s ironic preludes and Prokofiev’s spiky 6th Sonata comprised the second half, with a handful of encores to lighten the mood at the end.

The following night, a quartet of singers and pair of pianists offered the fairly well known if rarely performed Love Song Waltzes by Brahms and the almost completely unknown Spanish song cycles by Robert Schumann.  None of the singers is well known, but all enjoy active careers in opera and concert. Together with two equally un-famous pianists, they conspired to produce a performance that was much more than vocally suave and musically expert: they made of each song a delightful character portrait or miniature drama.

The third Johannisberg concert featured star clarinetist Sabine Meyer.  In the 1980s, she was selected by Herbert Von Karajan for a place in the Berlin Philharmonic but the all-male ensemble rejected her; undaunted, she quickly established a major career as a soloist and chamber musician at the very top of the field.

In this case, she was joined by pianist Martin Helmchen and cellist Mischa Meyer (no relation) in a mostly predictable program, given the instrumentation: the early “Gassenhauertrio” by Beethoven and late Clarinet Trio by Brahms, plus one of the late sonatas for Piano and Cello by Beethoven.  Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano took us a bit farther afield, adding spice to the evening.  Meyer brought the clarinet’s full range of tonal possibilities to bear, making something colorful and sensuous, even playful, of this piece of “dreaded” atonal music.

Another evening, a program of music by Mozart and his Prague friends was set in the cloister and several rooms of the 12th-century Cistercian Eberbach abbey. The almost four-hour-long concert began with a flute concerto by Myslivicek and symphony by Dusek, punctuated by the Don Giovanni Overture and a couple of concert arias by Mozart, performed in an open air space that offers far better acoustics than many concert halls.

Then came an intermission of almost an hour, during which people had a glass of wine and a little snack, before the music continued with three simultaneous chamber music programs: the Chagall String Quartet plus the soloists heard in Part I in the lay-brothers’ dormitory, the Zemlinsky Quartet in the wine cellar, and the Oslo Chamber Academy, an original instrument band, in the basilica.

I opted for the latter and delighted in “Harmoniemusik”— wind chamber works, again by Mozart, Dusek, and Myslivecek. Then it was back to the cloister, where a few drops of rain failed to dampen the high spirits of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony.

The opulent ballroom of the Kurhaus (“Spa House”) in Wiesbaden was the setting for an evening of opera highlights, featuring a pair of young, unknown singers (soprano Anna Samuil and tenor Pavol Breslik) and the Munich Radio Orchestra under the baton of an equally young, unknown conductor, Marko Letonja. Clearly designed to be a light entertainment of fun music, it succeeded admirably: the audience was delighted, called for numerous encores, and finally got in on the act, singing along with a reprise of “Libiamo” from Act I of La Traviata while the conductor and soloists sipped champagne.

In all, the week was a delightful way for a music maven to spend a holiday: leisurely days dedicated to visiting old churches and castles, walking along the river, through vineyards, villages, and forests, feasting on contemporary gourmet food and hefty traditional German fare accompanied by the area’s own fine wines; evenings overflowing with a great diversity of music, much of it rarely, if ever heard live, yet all accessible and always well-performed in appealing surroundings.