The Ring is everywhere. You cannot escape the Ring.
Leafy Bonn is the city of Beethoven, whose presence registers discreetly everywhere. The formal side is the bronze monument in the central square and the Beethovenhaus birthplace museum. But while Bonn hasn't yet stooped to Salzburg/Mozart levels of commercialisation, there's also tasteful and presumably officially-sanctioned graffiti, enterprising shop window displays, even marzipan figurines. Still Wagner manages to get a look in too, as he so often does.
The 19th century Schloss Drachenburg just outside town is plastered with splashy Nibelungenlied murals. A short walk away lies the squat Nibelungenhalle, built in 1913 to mark the centenary of Wagner's birth, and decorated with scenes from his Ring. There was even a 'Ring Convention' getting underway at my hotel as I checked out. As the lobby filled with princesses and wizards and the hot guy from Game of Thrones, it became clear that this Ring was of the Tolkien variety. But at least breakfast was livened up by a bit of hobbit-spotting.
Back to Beethoven. The Beethovenfest Bonn is one of the oldest classical music events around, beginning in 1845 as a three-day celebration to mark the unveiling of the Beethoven monument, and attended by Liszt, Berlioz and Meyerbeer. It's now a month long, and this year's 174 events included 68 concerts. Encompassing not just Beethoven but everything from jazz to John Cage, it has broadened into a general arts festival including films, talks, puppet shows - you name it.
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra crowned the closing days of the festival with a Beethoven symphony cycle, grouted with some contemporary spice. The combined effects of a long journey and a short rehearsal could be heard in the first of their concerts, where the First and Seventh symphonies emerged with a sort of dazed precision and some idiosyncratic balances. They were joined by the brilliant, indefatigable Viviane Hagner for the beguiling sonorities of Unsuk Chin's Violin Concerto - a slightly overlong work perhaps, but utterly original with its tinkling chimes and keening trails.
They were on heartier form the following night for the Second and Third symphonies, crisply confident and decisive. In between composing this pair, Beethoven set out his Heiligenstadt Testament, a moving account of despair as his deafness became increasingly unbearable, at poignant odds with the sunny, triumphant music we associate with this period of the composer's life. So what better to slip in between the two symphonies than Brett Dean's Testament, a reflection on this letter? Put like this the programming seems blindingly obvious, but I don't think it's been done before.
The rosin-free bows used for part of Dean's work produce an ugly scratching sound, terribly evocative in its contrast with the elegant bowing movements that register visually. These furiously busy scrapings alternate with more lyrical passages played with regular rosined bows. I recalled the ear trumpets I'd seen in the Beethovenhaus the day before, cumbersome and quite probably ineffective. Lying beside them were the essential notebooks with which the composer supplemented half-heard conversations.
"Art has a mind of its own" is the Beethoven quote the 2012 uses as it motto. But as Beethoven's struggle reminds us, a mind is nothing without an indomitable will.
The 'other' Ring:
Intermezzo visited Bonn as the guest of Bonn Tourism, Germanwings and Maritim Hotels.
Beethovenfest 2013 will be held from 6 September until 5 October. The programme will be announced in March 2013. For more information visit http://en.beethovenfest.de/.
Flights from Manchester to Cologne and London to Cologne with Germanwings start from £29.99 www.germanwings.com/en.
Maritim Hotel Bonn room only rates for 2012 start from 200.00 Euros in a double room www.maritim.com.