Lucerne Festival at Easter: Jansons with the Bavarians and Bruckner

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Beethoven, Bruckner  Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor), Radu Lupu (piano), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 29.3.15 (JR)

Mariss Jansons Photo   copyright Priska Ketterer
Mariss Jansons Photo copyright Priska Ketterer

Beethoven:            Piano Concerto No. 1
Bruckner:              Symphony No. 6

Lucerne’s Easter Festival, unlike Salzburg, does not seem to attract as international and elegant an audience as their prestigious summer festival, it’s more of a precursor for the locals. Nevertheless, the festival was graced by some big names, among them Bernard Haitink in a conducting masterclass, John Eliot Gardiner , the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir in a Bach B minor Mass, Ingo Metzmacher and the South West German Symphony Orchestra with Mahler 6 and two concerts with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The first was Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, the second – to conclude the mini-festival – was Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony.

 The first half of the concert was devoted to Beethoven, his First Piano Concerto in the highly capable and experienced hands of Radu Lupu. How many times must he have played this? Nonetheless he managed to make it sound as though everything was fresh. He walked nonchalantly, almost shambled, onto the stage and took his seat (as usual, a proper chair, not a stool) so he could sit back, arms folded until his participation was required. It was like watching an old friend play to a few onlookers in his home, so relaxed did he look and play. His many years of intimate knowledge with this concerto paid dividends, as he playfully and elegantly deconstructed the piece whilst maintaining its flowing lines. There was no flamboyance, no histrionics, just technical and musical perfection. Jansons was a very sprightly accompanist, speeds were judged perfectly, and the beauty of his Bavarian orchestra – particularly the principal clarinet and bassoon – shone through between the lines. It was all over too soon but Lupu rewarded us with the gentlest of encores, from Schumann’s “Waldszene” op. 82, “Einsame Blume”.

 Jansons is probably not my Bruckner conductor of choice – but I can no longer experience the luxury of a previous principal conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Eugen Jochum, or a Günter Wand.

 Jansons has been performing and recording all the Bruckner symphonies (mainly with the Concertgebouw) and having got the mainstream symphonies out of the way is turning his attention to the “lesser” works. His Sixth has been described as the “ugly duckling” of his symphonies though Bruckner himself said it was his “boldest” (“die Sechste ist meine Keckste”). At least we do not have to discuss the various revisions and versions, and Bruckner himself made no substantial revisions to it (Mahler made a few to the inner movements).

 Bruckner’s detractors say he wrote the same symphony many times over: I know exactly what they mean but fundamentally disagree with their open denigration of this composer. The Sixth stands apart from the works around it, the Fourth and Fifth before it, the Seventh and Eighth afterwards: there is more lyricism in the Sixth but also, in parts, extraordinary rhythmic complexity. These virtues are also some of Janson’s strengths and we were given a performance which portrayed most convincingly and persuasively some of the fine aspects of this score, played so less often than its mature companions, and why it should not be ignored. There are many wondrous passages, stirring brass outbursts and the orchestra was on top form: the double basses were spectacular in the opening movement and at the end of the work were given a particularly warm reception, also by the other sections of the orchestra – as was the timpanist.

 The symphony has meandering sections, particularly in the slow movement, where I fail to follow the argument and a puzzling, disjointed Finale. Jansons completed the task in 52 minutes, well short of the 60 minutes usually accorded the symphony. Jansons never lingers, never hangs around, and has a tendency to pull the tempi about, so that some critics call it Bruckner-lite and prefer other interpreters.  It was still satisfying to hear the Sixth played by a magnificent orchestra in splendid acoustics.

John Rhodes

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