Carefully Chosen Programme Highlights Qualities of Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival (5) – Prokofiev, R. Strauss, Scriabin: Munich Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL), Lucerne 2.9.16. (JR)

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic (c) Lucerne Festival

Prokofiev – Suite from the ballet Romeo and Juliet

Strauss – Symphonic Fantasy from Frau ohne SchattenDon Juan

ScriabinPoem of Ecstasy

Munich can count itself a fortunate city, musically speaking. It is blessed with not one, but two very fine orchestras (of equal standing) and a world-class opera company to boot. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (founded after the War) is led by Mariss Jansons, the opera company by Kirill Petrenko and, the Munich Philharmonic (founded in 1893) has as its Chief Conductor – since last year – Valery Gergiev, taking over from a long line of big names including Kempe, Celibidache, Levine, Thielemann and Maazel.

This was the orchestra’s first appearance at the Lucerne Festival under their new Chief Conductor (last year he brought the Mariinsky Orchestra). The Munich Phil last appeared at the Festival under Maazel four years ago.

Gergiev chose a programme in which no soloist could steal the limelight. The spotlight was firmly on him and his orchestra and they duly sparkled.

Love was the theme to be found in all four works performed, providing a not altogether tenuous link to the “Prima Donna” theme accorded to the whole Festival.

The concert opened with Gergiev’s own selection from the Romeo and Juliet suite, eschewing to my dismay “Tybalt’s Death” and concentrating on some of the more saccharine and balletic pieces. This was a full-blooded performance with sonorous almost Russian-sounding brass, scampering strings and mellifluous woodwind. Few conductors today know the intricacies of this score as well as Gergiev. His conducting style is not the most attractive to watch, with strangely fluttering hands (and, rather off-putting, occasionally his head!) and he always dispenses with a baton – which on occasion does not aid precision of ensemble. Unusually Gergiev placed the entire brass section (so including the horns) on the right of the orchestra and the double basses on the left.

Richard Strauss is very much in the blood of this orchestra and they duly sailed through the Frau ohne Schatten suite, reminding us what splendid melodies this opera contains, even if hampered by a ridiculous plot. The fine trombonist, quite properly, received individual applause for his flawless contribution.

After the interval, more Richard Strauss in the shape of Don Juan, in which the mop-haired Leader stood out for his precise and characterful playing. He also wins the prize for the orchestra member with the most colourful name, Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici – he has led the orchestra for nigh on 25 years. The clarinettist, Alexandra Gruber, also caught my attention in each of the four works in the concert and deserves a special mention. Yes, there were a few minor fluffs and rough ensemble, but overall this was a fine performance.

Finally, a rare outing for the KKL’s huge modern organ and an equally rare opportunity to hear the Poem of Ecstasy. Scriabin said the piece was like staring directly into the sun, an ecstatic glimpse. It was strange to reflect that, given its modernity and dissonance, the piece was composed some thirty years before the Prokofiev.

Scriabin uses the orchestra to revel in voluptuous excess – Henry Miller said it resembled a “bath of cocaine”. Its intoxicating score begins dreamily invoking Debussy and then develops into a series of orgasmic climaxes. Gergiev proved a master and clear devotee of the score.

The Lucerne Festival now enters into its final fortnight and with most Swiss now having returned from their summer holidays, the Festival (rather like the Proms) pulls out all the stops. It’s rather an embarrassment of musical riches: in quick succession music lovers can hear the Berliners (Rattle), Clevelanders (Welser-Möst), Concertgebouw (Gatti), Rotterdamers (Nézet-Séguin), Gewandhaus (Blomstedt), Viennese (Haïm/Sokhiev), Staatskapelle Berlin (Barenboim) and to bring down the final curtain with a flourish, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela (Dudamel) performing Messiaen’s “Turangalîla” Symphony.

My next review, in a few days’ time, will be of the other Munich Orchestra, the Bavarian State Orchestra under Kirill Petrenko. They have a hard act to follow.

John Rhodes

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