Lucerne Festival (1): Nelsons Meets High Expectations in Mahler 5

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival: Haydn, Mahler: The Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Lucerne (KKL)  20.8.2015 (JR)

Haydn: Symphony No. 94 “Surprise”
Mahler:  Symphony No. 5

This year’s Lucerne Festival takes “Humour” as its over-arching theme. I am unsure quite what a Festival gains from having an overall theme, especially when Festival Management has to bend over backwards to find that theme in all the music scheduled at the Festival (much of which is virtually pre-ordained by the visiting orchestra, which performs the same work at a number of the other summer music festivals such as the Proms, Salzburg, Edinburgh). Humour can probably be found somewhere in most works if you look hard, though I struggle personally in that regard with some contemporary works.

Not hard however in the case of Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony”. In German, it’s known as the “Paukenschlag” symphony (timpani stroke) which gives the game away. According to Haydn lore, the idea of the surprise arose from Haydn’s witty desire to shock his lazier listeners awake when they might be most sleepy, during the slow movement. When the moment of the surprise actually came, Nelsons characteristically jumped into the air. Nelsons is not the first name I think of for a Haydn conductor, but he exhibited more than enough bonhomie to display’s the work’s charms and coax some fine playing from this “scratch” orchestra. The performance was full of joie de vivre and there were smiles all round: all hugely enjoyable.

Allow me to spend a few words on the history and current make-up of the Lucerne Festival orchestra. It came into being in the summer of 2003 under Claudio Abbado. In 1938, when the Lucerne Festival itself was born, Toscanini had assembled a “Concert de Gala” made up of some of the celebrated virtuosi of his time, formed them into a unique orchestra of elite musicians and this was used as a model some 65 years later. Internationally acclaimed principals (concertmasters), chamber musicians and music teachers (often former principals from prestigious orchestras) now come together every summer around a core of players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to form a world-class ensemble. Abbado, whom rumour has it hand-picked some of the orchestra’s members, referred to the orchestra as “an orchestra of friends”. Following Abbado’s death, Haitink and Nelsons have acted as caretaker managers; Riccardo Chailly has recently been announced as the longer term replacement as Artistic Director. Nelsons, having lost out, so to speak, in Berlin and now in Lucerne, did not look in any way troubled by his “fate” – he is still a podium superstar, clearly very happy in Boston, and I guess his time in Berlin may still come.

The programme lists the players and their provenance, which makes fascinating reading. I spotted the name Wolfram Christ as the leader of the violas, ex Berlin Philharmonic in Karajan’s day and now a Professor in Freiburg. There are surprisingly only a couple of principals (horn, bassoon) from the Tonhalle, down the road in Zurich; otherwise many Germans, from a number of top orchestras (but not Berlin) and from Salzburg (but not Vienna). There are some Italians (Santa Cecilia) and Dutch (Concertgebouw and Rotterdam) the odd Scandinavian and the odd Brit.

The star of the show in the Mahler was undeniably the principal trumpet, Reinhold Friedrich. He is now a Professor in Karlsruhe but for many years he was principal trumpeter with the Radio Sinfonie Orchestra of Frankfurt (Hessischer Rundfunk as it’s known locally), in its golden era under Eliahu Inbal, whose superb Mahler performances remain legendary and I was privileged to hear. There is no dress code for the orchestra; all the men wear dark suits, white shirts and ties of all colours but the beaming and flamboyant Prof. Reinhold allowed himself an open-necked black shirt. No-one cared, he played splendidly.

Nelsons’ Mahler was bound to be a different beast to that of Abbado and Haitink, whose acts he was following, so to speak. Nelsons meddles with every bar, almost with every note and that does pay dividends but it also gives the music scant time to breathe. The orchestra followed his instructions to the letter, particularly the pianissimi. My overall impression of the orchestra was that the brass section were first-rate, woodwind very fine (without any one principal standing out though they swayed together most impressively) but the strings surprisingly lacked the bloom of more established orchestras. There was also the occasional lapse in concentration; this evening’s performance was not quite recording quality (although cameras were present to record it for TV/DVD).

In the wild sections, Nelsons was muscular and bounded with tireless energy; in the lyrical sections such as the Adagietto he stood back, put aside his baton and revelled in the lyricism, trying to demonstrate this now sadly hackneyed movement not as an elegy but an achingly beautiful love-letter to Alma Schindler, later to become Alma Mahler.

The roars at the end of the concert attested to a very fine and memorable performance. Abbado would have been pleased with it too.

John Rhodes

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