Throughout the middle of Germany there are dozens of towns and villages with the prefix Bad. It is one of those unfortunate sideswipes of linguistic history that the German word for bath or spa should be the same as the English adjective for rubbishy or rotten. Maybe it reflects the mediaeval dislike of washing. Just think how unfair it would be if some of the most elegant spots in this country had that epithet: Bad Cheltenham, Bad Buxton, Bad Tunbridge Wells… Tchaikovsky once spent a rainy month outside Frankfurt at Bad Soden, though, which seems to have summed things up nicely.
In the 1850s Rossini found himself with an unfortunate and embarrassing complaint, a result of a man behaving badly, and decided to try the watery treatment rooms at a little spa in the northern hills of Bavaria (Germany’s answer to the Cotswolds) called Bad Kissingen. The waters, massages, steam cabinets and cream cakes may not have done much for his infections but he did at least start composing again after over twenty years, apparently wandering around town handing out visiting cards with little scraps of music doodled on them. These he worked up into a collection of non-operatic pieces he eventually published as Sins of my Old Age, which for those in the know punned on his reasons for going to the spa in the first place.
Over the rest of the 19th century and up until WWI, the facilities attracted a steady supply of German aristocrats and the upper middle classes. Before the fashion for seaside bathing, the pleasant hills and charming villages were the perfect summer escape from noxious cities. Bad Kissingen built fine hotels, gracious gardens and a complex of halls and performances spaces to cater for those who did not want to spend their entire time being boiled and purged. The Vienna Symphony Orchestra came for the summer season as did many of Bohemia’s best musicians.
Everything then gradually declined as war and the division of Germany (the border with the East was not far away) removed all those comfortable certainties for half a century. Then, in the mid-1980s, the town’s mayor decided to plough resources into a music festival, using the two fine halls – the Rossini Saal for recitals and the lovely wood-panelled Max Littman Saal for symphonic concerts. Bavarians take their music seriously, so that Bad Kissingen (with a population of only 20000 plus visitors) has a budget for its festival in June and July not much smaller than Edinburgh’s. And even if the spa’s adherents are still mostly elderly Germans in need of hope as much as therapy, the concerts are well supported. Pick any handful of days to visit and the programme will offer a sumptuous combination of good performers and interesting music: well-known works mixed with the adventurous and unusual.
This year I was invited to spend a long weekend getting to know the festival, Kissinger Sommer. In just four days there were as many fine pianists; Leif Ove Andsnes, as always drawing fascinating links between each of the pieces he played and banning applause in between (hooray!), Beatrice Rana, equally inventive in her phrasing for Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and two up-and-coming players who have made a name for themselves in Britain too, Ariel Lanyi and Lauren Zhang, giving half a recital each.
Then there was an excursion to a former convent in the countryside for superb chamber music either side of Sunday lunch from the Modigliani Quartet and others, including an exhilarating performance of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenirs de Florence. Back in town that evening the great violinist Anne Sophie Mutter, was celebrating her 60th birthday year by putting together a group of friends and her one-time students to play in the modern baroque manner – standing, moving around, with rarely more than two instruments to a part. Without baroque bowing techniques, pitch and interpretation this does not quite work for Bach and Vivaldi – these days we expect more subtlety – but Mutter knows her audience and is always sincere. She was actually at her best when leading her group in the Nonett by her late (and much missed) husband, André Previn.
Before and after the music some of Bad Kissingen’s most attractive assets are the cafés and restaurants lining the riverside path and rose gardens just across the road from the concert halls. They are not open very late but for a pre-concert cocktail and wind-down afterwards, they are thoroughly civilised. I became quite partial to something at the Café am Rosengarten called a gin spritz which had more than gin and fizzy water but exactly what, I was not allowed to know.
Images: An elegant after concert party in Bad Kissingen and Anne Sophie Mutter and Friends in the Max Littmann Saal. Both photos © Julia Milberger.