Lucerne Festival (LF1) A Question of Faith: Welser-Möst and the Clevelanders

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival: Pintscher, Bruckner: The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum , Lucerne 25.8.12 (JR)

Pintscher: Chute d’Étoiles: Hommage à Anselm Kiefer
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4

Welser-Moest Cleveland Orchestra Lucerne Festival
Photo copyright Priska Ketterer

This year’s Lucerne Festival takes as its overriding theme the question of “Faith”. There was a degree of spiritual contemplation which could be discerned in both works in this evening’s programme.

The opening work was a world premiere (a commission by pharmaceuticals giant Roche) by young German composer Matthias Pintscher, a work in homage to German sculptor Anselm Kiefer, and in particular to his monumental installation in the Grand Palais in 2007 entitled “Falling stars”. Part of this sculpture was depicted in the concert programme and showed a huge concrete structure, visibly part of a building, which appeared to have been partially demolished, perhaps by a bomb or meteorite. The music attempts to evoke this catastrophe commencing with an outcry from a massive orchestra; an explosion, a breakdown, a collapse, perhaps a reference to the Big Bang? Onto this canopy Pintscher adds two solo trumpets which instantly brought to mind Goldenberg and Schmuyle from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. The two Principals from the Cleveland Orchestra, Michael Sachs and Jack Sutte, displayed their skills with considerable virtuosity, frequently having to emit fluttering sounds without playing a tone. From the orchestra there were eerie tones and cosmic explosions, there were strange noises from unfathomable instruments; ultimately this did not make for a satisfying whole. There was polite applause, mainly directed, it has to be said, to the two brave soloists.

And so to the main work of the evening, Bruckner’s monumental Fourth Symphony, another cosmic epic. The chief interest here was the version selected by the conductor, not the usual choice of Haas or Nowak or Schalk, or the Mahler orchestration; Welser-Möst chose the 1888 version in a very recent edition by American musicologist Benjamin Korstvedt. Bruckner composed his first version of the work in 1874 but withdrew it before performance; it was not even published until 1975. From 1878 to 1880 Bruckner reworked the material in the first two movements and rewrote the final two movements, and this 1881 version is most frequently performed today. However in 1887 he embarked on further revisions and this led to the first printed edition and it is this edition which Mr. Korstvedt has revisited to prepare his recent scholarly edition. Whilst it may have a claim to legitimacy, and is of interest to those acquainted with the usual versions, it revealed – in my opinion – that Bruckner was right to listen to his critics. Dynamics in this version were dull and tempi often sluggish; developments were cut short; there were puzzling and tentative cymbal clashes; and sudden pauses in strange places which disturbed continuity.

Welser-Möst impressed by contrasting the tender reflective passages with the work’s frequent muscular passages, though I found his flailing arms off-putting. This version of the symphony failed to thrill as much as it can; it thrives off greater volume and steadier tempi. There was no sense of momentum in the opening movement, the Andante was funereal (it brought to mind memories of Celibidache’s Bruckner); the Scherzo was the movement which came off best with bright chirpy woodwind. There was no roar from the audience even after a reasonably thrilling Finale.

The orchestra displayed their impeccable and polished quality throughout, particular the fine body of violins. Welser-Möst clearly loves his Bruckner (he is working through the symphonies one by one) and now takes this concert programme to Bruckner’s spiritual home, the revered St. Florian near Linz. I beg to differ however with co-Seen and Heard reviewer Bruce Hodges who wondered, after hearing Welser-Möst perform symphonies 7, 8 and 9 in the space of three days last August in the Lincoln Centre, New York, whether Welser-Möst was not the finest living Bruckner conductor around (review); I will continue to place my faith in Haitink and Abbado.

John Rhodes