Monday 29 July 2013

The statue in the orchestra

Writing a programme article on Strauss's operatic canon for the Royal Opera's recent Capriccio, I was struck - and took the same title as a result - by the composer's reminscences about his operas from the perspective of 1942. He quotes Berlioz on Fidelio: 'Grétry has accused Mozart of putting the pedestal on the stage and the statue in the orchestra'. A bizarre charge, of course, as Berlioz recognised: just because the greatest operatic composer of all time gave his orchestra a dramatic commentary equal to the singers' music, not more important, he fell under suspicion.

There's a rather different application of the conceit in the case of my visit to the English National Ballet's triple-bill 'Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev' on Thursday with my Arts Desk colleague Ismene, who reviewed it with her usual knowledgeable stylishness. I should quickly point out that, despite this initial plaint, this was an evening of pure pleasure. Yet the middle of the three ballets did provide a case of the statue in the orchestra being so riveting that I hardly looked up at what could only be garlanding.

This was Maurice Béjart's brave - for 1971, but still not brave enough by our standards - attempt to give two men a Pas de deux in his choreography to Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, called Song [singular] of a Wayfarer. Maybe it's because I'm a 'first the music, then the dance' kinda guy that I couldn't take my eyes off young baritone Nicholas Lester (pictured above) in the pit, effortlessly projecting Mahler's intense meanings as he covered the extraordinary vocal and emotional gamut of these four songs. That's a real quality voice, too, something of a rarity. I sometimes find the company's principal conductor, Gavin Sutherland, a little stodgy, but the orchestra is a luxury band and both were on good form in the partnership.

What seemed to be going on above wasn't easily readable: two young men, connected physically but emotionally distant, reacting to the moods of the cycle but never going anywhere as the music's trajectory so obviously does (this is a beef I have with ballet, that it can't develop). Some surprising gestures, a fluid movement of the arm at a trill, the most striking complement to the funeral march of 'Die zwei blauen Augen'; and it was strongly danced by tall young ENB treasure Vadim Muntagirov, partnering a perhaps deliberately impassive Esteban Berlanga. But for me it was just ornamental. Ismene says I have to see what Kenneth MacMillan does in Song of the Earth, so at the first possible opportunity I shall.

In a way, though, I'm putting the cart before the horse, and the statue only briefly in the pit, in accounting for a box of delights which now strikes me as all the more welcome since what followed was total immersion in great, but thorny, Britten, up in Norfolk. Petrushka - what new can one say about the total co-ordination between Stravinsky's score, Fokine's choreography and Benois's designs, looking fresh and lavish in the sets and costumes ENB has borrowed from the Birmingham Royal Ballet?

Every musical gesture finds its vivid counterpart in the dance, from Petrushka's hammering on the walls of his prison booth and the Moor's coconut games - the dodginess in the role these days slightly undercut by having a black dancer, Shevelle Dynott, playing up the caricature -  to the footstamping of the coachmen and the hanky-waving wetnurses.

The sets can still surprise, especially when the forecloth of black demons flying over Petersburg falls during the scene-linking drumroll and leads to the stark interior chez Petrushka. Fabian Reimair was poised fabulously between the doll and the human (above in Petrushka's death scene), but no more so than Dynott and Nancy Osbaldeston as an absolutely deadpan Ballerina (both pictured below).

How do they do that opening scene when they seem to hang from pegs jigging about to the Danse Russe? Above all this was a real ensemble show, every detail beautifully illuminated in dance, design and sound. What a great masterpiece it is, still absolutely fresh.

Nureyev's exuberant elaboration of Petipa in Raymonda Act III, on the other hand, keeps the high St Petersburg classical style very much alive. I'm fascinated by so much of his often overstuffed but oh so vital choreography, and I was surprised to learn - even though I read Julie Kavanagh's wonderful biography when it came out, and must have forgotten - how much work he did with the London Festival Ballet, as it then was, around the same time in the mid 1970s that the above photo was taken.

The Raymonda divertissement is done to the highest standards here, with a dazzling take on the old-fashioned by designer Barry Kay radiantly lit by John B Read. I was delighted to hear some of Glazunov's fondant score live for once, and the act begins dazzlingly with a Straussian apotheosis. But apart from two numbers it isn't musically the best stuff in the ballet (postscript: been listening again today to Anissimov's excellent performance of the complete ballet, and the big Pas de deux - plural - in the first two acts are much more remarkable. What a rich, if sometimes sticky, score it is, the fourth Tchaikovsky ballet fallen into decadence). The exceptions are the Grand Pas Hongrois for the corps in glittering white and Raymonda's variation, written for piano to imitate, I assume, the cimbalom (the Hungarian links are tenuous in the plot but give the composer plenty of opportunity for specific colour).

This last was one of the loveliest bits of ballet I've ever seen, Daria Klimentová bewitching and slightly self-mocking en pointe. What a stylish dancer she is, so much more characterful than Rojo in the company's Sleeping Beauty (though Ismene assures me there are things in Aurora's part Klimentová could never manage and that technically Rojo is in a class of her own). Klimentová's partnership with young Muntagirov has become one of the surprise success stories of the ballet world, and their Grand Pas (Pas Classique Hongrois in the original) rightly set the house alight.

But then so did much else in this highest quality evening. I can hardly believe the whole triple bill was up for a mere few days, but then that's the evanescent ballet world for you. One thing's for sure: ENB, especially with newly defected dancers, can certainly give the Royal Ballet a run for its money.

All dance images by Arnaud Stephenson, courtesy of English National Ballet

Thursday 25 July 2013

Monreale 2: cloister

History lesson duly despatched in Part the First, I can go straight to the statistics having noted that more beautiful or intimate cloisters exist down the hill in Palermo, not least the one in the church of La Magione and the lived-in one of Sant'Agostino. But the heaven here is in the detail, as well as the devil and sundry underworldly creatures. There are 228 marble columns, many of them inlaid with glass tesserae, in the vast cloister (47m long on each side) which is all that remains of the original 12th century monastery at Monreale. Multiply that (mostly) by two, as double columns support four-sided capitals, to get the number of different carved scenes on the capitals and you have some sense of the colossal work of craftsmanship that went on here in a very short space of time up to about 1200.

For me, it's the ultimate treasury of the medieval fantasy you also get in our own church and cathedral capitals, corbels and misericords, with a dash of the Arabic legacy William II was careful to nurture in his court. That's most obvious in the diaper work on the pointed arches

and in the drinking fountain, surrounded by a kind of mini-cloister in itself in the south west corner.

Most of our time was spent on the east side, where the late afternoon March sun still shone the brightest.

While J put his feet up and took in the rays, I went from pillar to pillar cooing over the sheer variety and range of execution of the subject matter. Literature seems, in my perusal, to be flimsy on chapter and verse: the Monreale book I was planning on buying deals only with the mosaics inside the Duomo. There's a plan of the cloister with some (why not all?) of the details here, which tells me I missed a significant narrative of Norman coronation in the south-eastern corner, but the following should make some amends.

Let's start with the beasties, including harpies with monks' heads,

lions devouring man and beast,

men slaying dragons and serpents,

mermaids among evangelists

and other thingies from the bestiary I'd hesitate to name.

Some of the Biblical scenes look almost Roman in their sculptural quality, like the Massacre of the Innocents.

Many are charmingly naive: Adam, Eve and the Serpent,

scenes from the life of John the Baptist

and what I assume to be Old Testament cultivation

The list-obsessed part of my brain rebels at not having a full guide. If anyone knows where I can find one detailing each and every one of these carvings, please let me know. In the meantime, that leaves me only two more Sicilian retrospectives to go. This could last all year...

Monday 22 July 2013

Last week in pictures

Monday: occasionally sublime silent filmmaking up to and including this scene

but hell thereafter

D. W. Griffith's monstrous-fascinating, ultimately unforgivable 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, from Civil War to Klu Klux Klan, released on Eureka DVD.

Tuesday: dazzling total theatre

Chiwetel Ejiofor (pictured left with Daniel Kaluuya as Joseph Mobuto) gives a towering performance as Patrice Lumumba in Joe Wright's hyper-imaginative production of Aimé Césaire's A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic.

Wednesday - unique opera salon - and Friday - public performance, almost as sublime

Renée Fleming, by no means the only great thing about the Royal Opera's concert performance of Strauss's Capriccio.

Wednesday afternoon: noble portraiture

Franz Hals's portrait of an unknown man, seen in a quick visit to the National Gallery to look at the paintings on loan from Birmingham University's Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Room One.

Thursday: transcendental pianism

Yevgeny Sudbin surpasses himself in Liszt and Scriabin at the Wigmore Hall.

Saturday matinee: beyond-bad drama

Gabriel, a dire new play by Samuel Adamson at Shakespeare's Globe only partly redeemed by trumpeter Alison Balsom and Purcell's music.

Saturday evening: first-class conducting, singing and playing, music so-so

Antonio Pappano conducts his superb Accademia di Santa Cecilia forces in second-drawer Verdi at the Proms.

Sunday: a much-needed day off, including quality time with J's adorable godson Frankie, his brother Charlie and dad Nick Hills from Amsterdam lounging around the Victoria and Albert Museum's courtyard pool (the perfect place if you have to be in central London on a baking day). J went to the second performance of Capriccio and, I'm relieved to say, loved every minute of it.

Thanks, anyway, to The Arts Desk for making most of my visits possible. And for that same institution I'm soon to plunge into the wretched Albertine colosseum again for the first two instalments of Wagner's Ring as conducted by Barenboim. Siegfried and Götterdämmerung will be sacrificed to The Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Night's Dream up in north Norfolk at the weekend*, by which time Donner will have swung into action and our glorious heatwave will have crumbled into rainy days, I'm told.

Consequently I thought I'd throw in one of Frederic Church's admirable sketches, much better than his (over) finished paintings and previously in the NG's Room One before the Barber selection took over, of cumulo-nimbus clouds over his home, Olana, for Sue. As she knows, I and New York friend John Morris experienced an almighty storm up there, from which we sheltered in the porch, watching the fork lightning all over the Hudson Valley.

As for the end of our summer idyll here, never mind; we've had our vision and everyone except harrassed mothers seems to be the sunnier of temper for it.

*23/7 Now that I'm reeling from the diamond-cut magnificence of the Rheingold, I'm sorrier than I thought I would be about missing the last two instalments. But that doesn't stop me anticipating the Brittenfest with the keenest pleasure.

Photo credits: A Season in the Congo: Johan Persson; Capriccio: Catherine Ashmore; Yevgeny Subin: Clive Barda; Gabriel: John Haynes; Pappano at the Proms: Chris Christodoulou

Saturday 20 July 2013

Wie himmlische, nicht irdische

Sophie's wonder at the other-worldly Persian attar in Octavian's silver rose was mine on a very special occasion three days ago. I couldn't put up my most burning emotion about it then, but now that I've reviewed the first Royal Opera concert performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio over on The Arts Desk, I think it may be safely released into the e-ther. It still wouldn't be fair or honourable to write about the unique final-rehearsal experience in any kind of detail or critical nuance. But I hope I'm allowed, as the sole and hence very honoured guest of a distinguished cast member, to shout to the world the final impression of a performance under circumstances I'll remember to my dying day.

I may have - who hasn't? - blown hot and cold about the Renée Fleming phenomenon. Remember how the previous joint holder along with Margaret Price of the Beautiful Voice award, Kiri te Kanawa, could be engaged or on auto-pilot? Fleming's split is to be either naturalness itself, with soaring Straussian soprano instrument to command, or a little arch and vocally curdled. For the gift of Capriccio, though, may all her small sins be forgiven. 

The final rehearsal in question took place to myself and about 15 others luxuriously dotted around the Royal Opera stalls. Most singers were casually dressed, which was absolutely fine; Renée, however, gave us not only a dress and wrap to die for - my programme now tells me it was a 'Vivienne Westwood metallic floorlength Couture corset gown in sequins, with a silver and gold rose jacquard coat' (pictured above and below on Friday night by Catherine Ashmore) - but also absolutely no stinting on the performance at any point. Nor did anyone else hold back, for that matter, but the prima donna really is the one in the spotlight for the last 20 minutes.

That's a great diva as well as a dedicated professional and a canny businesswoman for you. And it meant that the final scene - to hell with whether we care about Countess Madeleine's sticky dilemma, the wonder of music solves every problem - soared and transported us as I've never heard it before in the opera house, which includes fabulous performances by Felicity Lott, Kiri and a singer I've always thought hugely underrated, the charming Margaret Marshall.

For more on the other singers, go over to the TAD review (I might add that newcomers Andrew Staples as composer Flamand and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as classy actress Clairon had added immeasurably to their new acquaintance with their roles by the first public performance). But just imagine it: the great Strauss experience as if presented in the Countess's salon for the select few. Did I feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet for hours after. Still do.

We've spent four sessions on the last Strauss stage masterpiece, a love-letter to a life in the operatic theatre, in the City Lit Opera in Focus class. The dilemma here was with whom to end - Renée in Robert Carsen's gorgeous if sharp-edged Palais Garnier production (illustrated up top and in its latest DVD format), or Kiri in Chicago. Early comparisons had quickly revealed that Carsen's vision was wittier and lighter in every respect than Stephen Lawless's on a too-big stage, and we stayed with it for most of the DVD sequences. It moves, moreover, from playfulness to great emotional weight towards the events of the late afternoon in the pre-revolutionary (for which read here occupied Paris) salon, so that tears were to be shed for Franz Hawlata's magnificently acted impresario La Roche long before the transcendent final glory.

Not all the students liked the opera's reference-studded debate, but the ones who didn't were predictably won over by the end. For the conversation-piece centre, despite Hotter and Gedda clamouring for attention on the old Sawallisch recording, I kept returning again and again to Karl Böhm with Schreier as composer and Prey as poet,  Janowitz and Fischer-Dieskau as aristocratic sister and brother, the peerless Troyanos as actress Clairon - oh, listen to those endless phrases of hers - and Karl Ridderbusch a magnificent La Roche (Nazi, sadly, but che artista, which will do if only for the duration of the recording). How well I remember its original LP boxed-set cover, such a poetic incarnation of the music/words issue.

Enough for now, but it might be worth recording the sources we traced.

For the discusssion between Olivier, Flamand and La Roche bringing Gluck into the argument, the Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide, amazingly available in a 1928 recording using Wagner's concert ending with Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra .

Still not found any precise tracing of the Piccinni opera buffa references, two of them, very jolly: anyone out there able to help?

The Countess cites a bit of Couperin which sounds like 'Le tic-tic choc' in Strauss's Divertimento arrangement, and of Rameau's 'Fra le pupille di vaghe belle', an afterthought, I believe, to Les Indes galantes; Carolyn Sampson has made a rather helium-y recording of it.

Much more obvious, to me at any rate, are Strauss's self-quotations after La Roche's aria (where I've just pinned down an elusive reference from Schubert's 'An die Musik'): the ranz des vaches farewell music in both Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, obvious bits of Ariadne auf Naxos and Daphne (bizarrely, that passage is cut from the Royal Opera performance). The masks and Sancho Panza turn up in the delightful little servants' scene.

Finally, if anyone cares, who's to be the Countess's choice, 'words' Olivier or 'music' Flamand, or inseparable both?  I'd say the argument is always firmly weighted in the composer's favour, and of course his is the last music Strauss quotes. I managed to sneak that point in my Strauss-operas article in the Covent Garden programme for the two concert performances. Don't miss the second tomorrow if you can get a ticket (there seemed to be a few available at both ends of the price range on the Royal Opera website, despite rumoured sold-out status).

Last musical notes here should belong to a recording I didn't know existed, and which doesn't appear on my 8 CDs of Strauss conducting. The YouTube clip is ascribed to him, and is a performance of the Moonlight Music (originally the piano interlude and postlude in the satirical anti-publishers song-cycle Krämerspiegel) before the Countess's final scene. Habe dank, Meister.

Friday 19 July 2013

Talking Ben with Jenni

Fair, firm and often very funny, Jenni Murray has been steering BBC Radio 4's ever-fresh Woman's Hour since 1987. Though only in reality a mere Dame, she is indeed the uncrowned queen of broadcasting, so I was more than usually excited to learn that she'd be interviewing me, albeit down the line from Salford to Broadcasting House, along with Susie Self (pictured below outside Cley Church, Easter 2010) about Susie's forthcoming all-women production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw.

The results were aired live this morning at 10.20 after a very entertaining and light-of-touch take on Robin Thicke's catchy but almost parodically sexist No. 1 hit 'Blurred Lines' - 'unrated' video version with nearly-naked girls wearing only transparent thongs here - and a sweet slot on tandems; you can hear the results on the BBC iPlayer here, though I'm not sure for how long.

The Screw stretch starts at 20m16s before we roll up at about 22m50s, giving me a chance to hear the boy-treble tones of the soprano singing Miles and Susie's rather amazing delivery of Quint's Moorish melismas at the tenor pitch (she'll be conducting, too, so the voice should sound more than usually disembodied from the pit with her back to the audience). The quick-witted Dame followed the right lines of enquiry - following detailed research last week by producer Helen Lee - as intelligently as I knew she would, and our responses don't sound too bad, though the curse of live radio has me giving 'Queen Elizabeth the Second' as the protagonist of Gloriana; Freudian slip, perhaps? And in a sense true, though I'm not sure which young man Madge can be deemed guilty of destroying (Charles?)

What do I think of the idea? Well, never judge a production until you've seen it. There will be substantial new insights but I don't think you can ever quite replicate the queasy intensity of having a boy treble as Miles. On the other hand, the precedents for Susie's Quint are there in Britten's writing the 'role' of the boy in what I think is his deeply sick second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, for Kathleen Ferrier. And Yelena Obraztsova was the (usually counter-tenor) Oberon in the Soviet premiere of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So it depends on the artist(s).

I'm hugely looking forward to a long weekend by (and in) the sea - a distant Susie on the beach near Sheringham that same Easter, above - when we travel to North Norfolk next week for our multitalented friend's Seastar Opera Turn of the Screw at Wells-next-the-Sea and the Yorke Trust opera course production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in glorious St Mary's South Creake. I'll be giving a talk and chairing a discussion in Wells's Granary Theatre on the morning of Saturday 27. Full details here: come and make a beach weekend of it !

Though the culture-vulturing really ought to stop in this summery heat, I've had to say the least a varied week of it mostly thanks to The Arts Desk: song and dance from Paco Peña's flamenco dance troupe and musicians from Guinea and Senegal last Friday, orchestral ballet music at the Proms on Sunday, an eye-popping (mostly for the wrong reasons) D. W. Griffith silent epic on Monday, the best theatre with an all-black cast I've ever seen including a stunning impersonation of Patrice Lumumba by the phenomenal Chiwetel Ejiofor on Tuesday, a diva giving her all to an audience of 15 on Wednesday morning which can't be written about until the first concert performance of Strauss's Capriccio at the Royal Opera tonight, and a second visit to hear pianist Yevgeny Sudbin at the Wigmore last night.

Embarrassment of riches indeed; but if only the sea were at hand to clear the mind and relax the body.

Very Grimes, this parting shot from the same 2010 break, no? If that's Susie striding ahead as the doomed fisherman - next stop for the mezzo/contralto taking on the tenor world, don't you think? - then J and Michael must play Balstrode and Ellen. 'Sail out till you lose sight of the Moot Hall, then sink the boat. Do you hear? Sink her! Good-bye, Peter.'

Sunday 14 July 2013

Collectors strong and fat

If ever you want a deflating and painfully funny outline of history, turn to Simon Winder, whose Germania I not only treasured at the time but also turned back to more recently as an alternative guidebook while we were in Dresden and Berlin.  Winder begins his Saxon rhapsody thus:

It is conventional in histories of Germany at this point to start talking about Prussia so that everyone can start gibbering and rolling their eyes with fear. Instead I thought I would write about Saxony.

He continues: 

The fundamental pleasure of Saxony lies in its hopelessness. It is as characteristically German as Prussia and yet as a political entity it failed in all it did. Saxony's history appears somewhat marginal, and yet this is the place that gave us Schumann, Wagner and Nietzsche. Despite woeful frivolity, insanity and misamanagement it clung on to its independence, never quite going under , until the last wholly unmourned king abdicated at the end of the First World War. At least while within the confines of Saxony it is possible to think of an alternative Germany - wayward, self-indulgent and inept in a way that gives hope to us all.

'Woeful frivolity' is incarnated in the personage of Friedrich August, Augustus II the Strong, who may have made the skyline of Dresden what it is today but who also, in Winder's inimitable words, 'embroiled Poland in disastrous wars [as its king, bizarrely converted to Catholicism], frittered money away on bits of amber and ivory, fathered over 300 children [si non e vero...], did a party-piece involving tearing a horseshoe apart with his bare hands, and left Saxony helpless and indebted to an eye watering degree'. It comes as no surprise to find him gilded on his horse, an appropriate image of hubris which we encountered with crescent moon behind it on a balmy summer evening stroll over to the Neustadt.

Yet we now have to thank Augustus the Strong for his obsession with the curious, and his 'pitiful' successor August III the Fat for his incredible assemblage of great paintings which forms the backbone of one of the world's finest collections, the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. He it was who in 1765 commissioned Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of Canaletto and happy to take his uncle's name, to paint the most futuristic-looking amon g that artist's often conventional views. Pictured up top, it represents the unintentionally prophetic demolition of  the Church of the Crucifixion's demolition on a site where now stands the Church of the Holy Cross in the Altes Marktplatz, around which sandbags still lay deposited a week after the floods.

Anyway, I digress. You can't get much more 1945 than such a painting.

I'd been to the Gemäldegalerie in 1990, of course. But since then Dresden's state museums organisation, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, has created several more of the world's best museums. It was a sentence about the 'headspinning Green Vault'  in Winder which made me keen, even on a day when we might have basked in the sun on the banks of the Elbe, that we should all visit the Neues Grünes Gewölbe in the Residenzschloss.

We first had to surmount some confusion over which ticket to buy; there seemed to be a separate one for the reconstructed vault itself, a main one for its major treasures and other collections. Clearly we had to see the extravagant and pointless masterpiece of August the Strong's chief goldsmith, the Swabian Johannes Melchior Dinglinger, The Birthday of the Grand Mogul Augungzeb.

I don't know what you can glean from this, one of the images the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen supplied me on request and all (I'm assuming, for some are creditless) taken by Jürgen Karpinski. The devil of 'woeful frivolity' is in the detail: 137 enamelled figures covered in 5,000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. There's also a hideous coffee set and plenty of what Winder calls 'repulsive little statues of dwarves'. Other regal donors had little more taste: Peter the Great  gifted a large sapphire in the form of a nose. Overshadowing the Lilliputian court in terms of expense is the green diamond for which Augustus III paid 400,000 thalers in 1742, now set in an agraffe (that's a clasp, for those of you who like me had never head the word before)..

This was the crowning glory in the route round the rooms as we took it. I think I preferred most of what was in the first, though, all around the late 16th-early 17th century mark and already tumbling into mannerism. Here's Daphne as a drinking vessel by Abraham Jannitzer of Nuremberg, coral serving as the laurel branches which mark her metamorphosis.

Much in this room would really come to life if the museum had a little more imagination to provide demonstrations once or twice a day. One such is the rolling-ball clock with supposedly revolving Roman emperors made by Hans Schlottheim in 1600. Again, the beauty is in the detail, so I apologise for the long shot.

There are also intriguing fripperies like the automatic spider of Tobias Reichel - what wouldn't you give to see this in operation? -

and the celebrated cherry stone of 1589 which, flanked by gold, enamel and pearl, is viewed under a magnifying glass so you can make out the 185 heads carved on it.

In spite of all this folly, much of the goldsmiths' work is extremely beautiful and artistic. I loved the wall mirror with Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the globe-shaped goblet held up by Hercules, some stunningly wrought ewers and basins. And there are quite a few handsome frigates like this one dated 1620 by Jakob Keller of Dresden.

The eye eventually tires of such opulence, but there's enough contrast to keep the interest alive for longer than usual in a museum trawl (I admired the Venetian reticulated glass in the third room, for instance). Even so, we had to give it a break and walked a fair way for lunch on the extraordinary roof terrace of the Yenidze Tobacco Factory - but that's for another time. Suffice it to say that we returned for more than an hour to the glories of the Turkish campaigns on the floor above the Neues Grünes Gewölbe, and were especially dazzled by the designs on the enormous tents, again sumptuously displayed and glowing in the near-darkness.

On, then, to Day Two in Dresden and back to the Gemäldegalerie in the Zwinger Palace. It's awaiting a big revamp, but so far the big grand room you reach first seems to have been sensitively relit and ordered. Raphael's celebrated Sistine Madonna, with the most reproduced winged putti in the world, naturally dominates, though I was pleased to see the two Dosso Dossis either side of it. These, like a very large percentage of the Italian renaissance collection including a Saint Sebastian of Antonello da Messina very different from the exquisite miniature portraits we saw in Sicily,

seem to have been acquired by Fat Augustus from Modena, also the source of some large-scale Correggios (the artist's least attractive work to me). He bought pictures from dealers all over Europe, and his taste - at least in the pictures on show - seems to have been catholic and yet discriminating. Mostly because of that, the Gemäldegalerie seems to have almost as much a representation of all the great artists, at least up to the 1750s, as the National Gallery. There's a Van Eyck to rival the one in Berlin (the saint's wings on the left are especially beautiful)

and two relatively early Vermeers, one characteristic

and the other not (how drawn one is in a room to the yellow of the Procuress's blouse).

The Guercino Evangelists are all outstanding, and once you hit the Titian room with the gallery's other most famous painting, the reclining Venus, a wealth of portraits unfolds over the next three rooms. Statesmen by Tintoretto and Titian

are followed by three great Holbein heads for the price of two, quite overshadowing for me the famous Dürer portrait of Bernhard von Reesen. In this room there's also a haunting face by an artist I'd never heard of, Barthel Beham)

and even among the host of Cranachs young and old there's an outstanding pair of portraits of two hard-looking nobles, Lord and Lady Macbeth to the life.

As it's Rembrandt's 407th birthday today (15/7) - Google, of all things, doodlingly reminds us - I ought to balance hard with soft and J's favourite picture in the collection, of Saskia with a flower.

Once past the Bellottos - and I think I'm right in saying there are some pictures by the real Canaletto too -  on the next floor, Fat Augustus's sway gives out, along with my interest in the eras concerned, but unflinching self-portraits by Mengs and Rosalba Carriera keep it lively. And then you come out in to the Zwinger courtyard, and realise how many thousand tourists have given one of the greatest galleries in the world a miss. Their loss. Augustus the Fat bequeathed an artistic treasure-house to the world. He also, according to Winder, carried on the tradition of 'political infantilism' by destroying Poland and reducing Saxony 'to a nullity'. I'll leave you Winder's judgment as postlude.

Germany's 20th century fate was not as Wilhelm II and Hitler believed it to be: to follow in the footsteps of Frederick the Great. Instead Germany followed in the footsteps of August III the Fat and his successors and was  beaten, devastated, occupied and partitioned, having twice entirely misunderstood the forces and resources arrayed against it. Perhaps Saxony is a more striking model for the anxious appraisal of German behaviour in the modern era and a much less harmless one than first seemed the case.