Perfect ensemble

Music - Peter Kingston meets the director of the superlative Dresden Staatskapelle

The lake behind the Semper Opera House in Dresden is black under its crust of ice. Though there's barely enough snow to dust a strudel, the air inflicts a stinging reminder that in late February the middle European winter is still in mid-waltz.

Inside the opera house, which was destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt 40 years later, there is plenty of warmth. The energy comes off the stage where Bernard Haitink is rehearsing with the legendary Dresden Staatskapelle, one of the oldest orchestras in the world. The heat is in the sound. "It's as if you are in a warm bath," Haitink tells me. Everybody uses a thermal metaphor to describe it.

This rehearsal is not just for the Sunday 11am concert - a delightful middle European tradition. It is also in preparation for the orchestra's first return to the UK in seven years. Its last two Prom visits, in 1994, prompted critics to proclaim it the best of the year. But, more than a decade after German unification, has the extraordinary discipline of the ensemble playing been corrupted? Has the Staatskapelle resisted the internationalisation that is starting to make orchestras across the world sound alike?

"The orchestra is very special," Haitink says without hesitation. Superlatives have been lavished on the Dresden Staatskapelle since it was founded in 1548. Beethoven aired the general view in 1823 that it was "the best orchestra in Europe". Rousseau called it the orchestra "with the most balanced forces and perfect ensemble". It was a "miraculous harp", according to Wagner, who waxed lyrical about "the shimmer of the Dresden violins, its moving woodwind cantilenas and the splendid sonority of its brass". Richard Strauss declared it "the best opera orchestra in the world" and premiered nine of his operas, including Salome and Der Rosenkavalier, in Dresden.

Since its earliest days, it has drawn colossal names to lead it, from Heinrich Schutz, its first great music director, to Carl Maria von Weber and Wagner. It has also lured the biggest names on to the platform: Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms all played with it. And the 20th-century list of its music directors plundered the Who's Who of the baton: Reiner, Busch, Bohm, Kempe, Sanderling, Blomstedt.

Inevitably, Dresden and its orchestra have been through turbulent times. The band survived it all, even the notorious February air raids of 1945 which obliterated the city centre and every theatre. Five months later, it gave its first postwar concert in Dresden, in a dance hall on the outskirts of the city.

During the cold war, the rehearsal schedule that the players now refer to as "the regime" seemed only to intensify their commitment to their orchestra and to music. As Haitink remembers: "My first contact with the orchestra was in 1987. At that time they said to me, 'Music is the only thing we have. We start at eight in the morning with chamber music rehearsals before the orchestral rehearsal at 10am because it's the only thing we've got.' "

The orchestra's manager, Eberhard Steindorf, points out, with a touch of pride, that during the foreign tours in that period, "all the players came back". Haitink agrees: "What's special is their incredible seriousness and their love of music." To some players on the western side of the former iron curtain, this commitment to music is very seductive. Far from losing players to the west, the movement has been the other way. Indeed, musicians in the west are prepared to take a significant salary cut to move east to play with the Staatskapelle. And this is despite a workload which includes 300 opera performances a year. Like the Vienna Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle is essentially an opera orchestra, and, like its Viennese counterpart, it produces the distinctive warm string tone.

New players spend a year moving around so they get to play beside everyone in their section. Then the whole orchestra votes on whether they stay or not. In 1923, under Fritz Busch's direction, the orchestra founded a training school to nurture future members. That was revived eight years ago as the Orchesterakademie, a hothouse where small groups of young string players who hope to join the band are coached by the string section leaders. The constant chamber music is vital, too, for the ensemble. Even when fielding its largest forces, for instance, for Strauss's Frau ohne Schatten, the orchestra is fabled for being able to produce the sound of a chamber group.

It gives 12 subscription symphony concerts a year, each of which get three performances. These are well-prepared, with four rehearsals apiece. At this Saturday's dress rehearsal, Haitink takes the Bruckner and Mozart straight through and asks to hear three or four fragments again. It may be a fancy, but between the middle European composers and the orchestra, there seems a particular affinity. This sounds as good as it can get. The flautist, Kury, laughs. "In the other orchestras I've played with, the rehearsal was often more brilliant or as good as the concert. Here, no. The concert is always better."

Peter Kingston is the Guardian's further education editor