Lucerne Festival (4): Glorious Bruckner from Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Lucerne Festival Bruckner (4) :  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne   14.9.2013 (JR)



Lorin Maazel Photo (c) P. Fischli
Lorin Maazel Photo (c) P. Fischli

Bruckner:   Symphony No. 8

Two concerts by the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic under octogenarian conductor Lorin Maazel programming Bruckner’s 8th and Shostakovich’s 5th have brought the glittering Lucerne Festival to a fitting close.  They are regular visitors: they first came to the Festival 56 years ago and have played no fewer than 92 concerts here.

I attended the Bruckner; it was simply splendid. Maazel is an old hand at Bruckner, an old hand, of course, at most of what he now chooses to conduct. He shows, remarkably, no outward signs of ageing: he virtually strides to the platform, stands throughout, needs no score, holds only very occasionally and lightly onto the back rail, conducts elegantly and clearly, if no longer vigorously. It is clear why illustrious orchestras revere him.

The Vienna Philharmonic abandoned having a single Chief Conductor many decades ago in favour of close artistic collaborations with top conductors. Maazel is a firm favourite. The programme mentioned that he has, since he started his career in 1954, conducted nearly 200 different orchestras in 7,000 concerts – I make that a staggering average of 118 concerts every year.

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to be able to contrast and compare the likes of the Concertgebouw, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, St. Petersburg, Dresdner Staatskapelle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony – on this concert’s evidence the Vienna remain more or less in a class of their own, together with the Berliners. Misogynistic they may still be (I did spot five female string players, mainly in the back rows, and do not include harpists) and their political past may well be a mite murky, but magnificent players they certainly are, to a man. Their principals almost fail to stand out, such is the overall quality of the playing across the board; they produce a homogenous and harmonious sound, from the incomparable string section to the (virtually) faultless brass. There were no split notes, no ragged edges, and no untidy entries.

Maazel chose judicious tempi and dynamics throughout. In the opening Allegro moderato he never allowed the music to drag and kept up the sense of pulse. The Scherzo had plenty of bounce, the timpanist’s occasional use of red-tipped sticks giving some of his contributions an almost historic performance feel. The sublime Adagio showed off the polish and sheen of the strings – and one could not fail to notice the polish on all their instruments and shoes (St. Petersburg take note!). Just occasionally Maazel slowed down a little too much for my liking, but it’s a very minor quibble: Bruckner did ask for the movement to be “feierlich langsam, aber nicht schleppend” (ceremonially slow, but do not drag), a difficult instruction to get just right, I will admit. Maazel made amends however at the exhilarating climax of the movement with its unexpected cymbal crashes. The horn section, French and Wagner variants, excelled all evening.

Neither did the Finale disappoint. Maazel steered us through, from the wonderful opening, through the exciting development to the glorious C major affirmation, which has been described as like the “Amen” in church, on the last pages. This inevitably brought roars from the audience and a bouquet of flowers, though Maazel, picking out just one red flower for himself, looked in vain for a female member of the orchestra to whom to hand on the accolade. It went to Rainer Honeck, Leader of the orchestra for the evening.

One does not need to be catholic to appreciate this symphony’s mystery and grandeur, its victory of light over darkness. This fine performance of this glorious symphony was a credit to all concerned.

Lucerne Festival, incidentally, frequently starts its symphony concerts on a Saturday and Sunday at 6.30 p.m. which allows concertgoers staying in Lucerne (often from all round the world) to have supper after the concert and those wanting to return to other Swiss cities (Zurich is 40 minutes away, Basle and Berne 60 minutes, Zug 20 minutes) time to reach the railway station, which is conveniently right next to the concert hall, and connected by underground walkway.  Generously the Festival ensures that holders of concert tickets obtain a 50% discount on rail travel for the evening of the performance. With views to Lake Lucerne and the Alps, the Festival is therefore always a memorable pleasure to attend.

John Rhodes