Switzerland Lucerne Festival (4) Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Volkhard Steude (violin) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 14.9.2014 (JR)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov)
The final visitor’s to this year’s prestigious Lucerne Festival were the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the dynamic baton of Gustavo Dudamel. The Viennese are traditional and regular visitors to the summer Festival (they are approaching their 100th concert at the Festival). I attended the last of their three concerts, an all-Russian programme (the preceding concerts had featured a Dvorak “Eighth” and a Sibelius “Second).
First off, the Easter Festival Overture, an entertaining but rather light-weight work, and was immediately aware of the very highest quality of woodwind and brass playing – although this venerable orchestra’s principal glory are their strings, and their First Violins in particular. Technical ability and gusto are evident right to the very back desks – and the sound is accordingly voluptuous. Dudamel built up the work’s intensity gradually but I had qualms about precision, and not only in this piece. Had rehearsal time been sufficient or were principals given too much free rein? The orchestra could surely not yet be tired, their lengthy tour of Shanghai and Japan is about to start.
Dudamel chose to play the Rimsky version of Night on Bald Mountain, which colours Mussorgsky’s more bleak and dissonant original scoring. The playing was frenetic and the work suited Dudamel’s fiery Latin temperament. Yet again the golden flutes sparkled; the piece ended with utmost delicacy.
I was rather disappointed with a bland performance of “Scheherazade”. Yes, it was exciting at times but the piece came over as repetitive – there was insufficient shading and highlighting from Dudamel. Before the concert I had spotted quite a few “Suche Karte” signs at the Abendkasse; there is no doubt that Dudamel is a Box Office draw but I personally remain to be convinced that, in mainstream repertoire, he is other than a highly competent conductor (wisely, he attempts little pre-1890). The orchestra, on the other hand, needs to convince nobody. It remains one of the pre-eminent world orchestras and can, it seems, play under almost any conductor and adopt their style. In this concert, however, they all too often appeared to be playing on autopilot, hardly looking up at the podium. Dudamel only really came alive in the furious passages of each work, beating time for the most part. The orchestra have the pick of the world’s top instrumentalists (though seem to find most close to home); each principal ensured they had time to show off his skills. Ensemble suffered as a result. I say “his skills” deliberately rather than “his/her skills” as the orchestra remains obdurately misogynistic: I counted only six women, some of whom have not been appointed to the Association of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Volkhard Steude was the impressive soloist in the Scheherazade: Steude has been a Konzertmeister of the orchestra for over fifteen years.
The encore was great fun and the orchestra were in their element: Johann Strauss’ “Egyptian March”, the perfect complement to the oriental sounds of “Scheherazade”. The whole orchestra sang along with jovial “La, la, las” to ensure the audience went home happy. The audience did not clamour vociferously for a second encore, so it was not given, although additional violins hanging intriguingly on a number of stands indicated a second encore had been prepared.
The curtain had come down on a successful Lucerne Summer Festival for another year.