Switzerland Lucerne Festival  – Wagner, Bruckner: Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne, 25.8.2018. (JR)
Wagner – Rienzi, Overture; Der fliegende Holländer, Overture
Bruckner – Symphony No.7 in E major, WAB 107
The Lucerne Summer Festival started just over a week ago, with Riccardo Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra kicking off with Lang Lang and Mozart, followed by The Firebird. I caught up with them a week later, on the 30th anniversary of Chailly’s Lucerne debut. Chailly is not – yet – revered in Lucerne in the way that Claudio Abbado was, and Bernard Haitink still is. Perhaps it will come with age: after all, Chailly only took over the helm of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra a few years ago and the orchestra is still seen as the brainchild of Abbado, who hand-picked so many of its players. About a quarter of them, mainly the backbone of the strings, emanate from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Others come from top orchestras around Europe, many from Berlin and Milan: there is a strong smattering of Italians, and Wolfram Christ, who was principal viola in Karajan’s day at the Berlin Philharmonic, ropes in his son Raphael to lead the orchestra and daughter Sarah to play the harp.
Two Wagner overtures made an odd but entertaining first half to this concert. I suppose one can be thankful that the conductor did not opt for a Mozart piano concerto. The Festival’s theme this year is ‘Childhood’, though the organizers strained to find a link to the theme with the works performed. Chailly ‘paired the two Wagner overtures from early Wagner in which the composer found his destiny as an artist with Bruckner’s mature masterpiece’: that’s about as far as Thomas May could take it in the programme notes.
The Overture to Rienzi did indeed make a fine curtain raiser but compared poorly with the invention of the The Flying Dutchman. One was immediately struck by the splendid sound of the orchestra, burnished brass, weighty yet silken strings and a fine body of woodwind. Chailly’s reading of the Rienzi overture was quite restrained, no risks were taken, no perspiration evident, but no one had any complaints. The Flying Dutchman was, in contrast, much more thrilling, the first violins exceptional. It conjured up the images of all the splendid productions of this opera one had seen.
In the interval, I asked one of the violinists from the orchestra about Chailly in rehearsal: interestingly, ‘logical’ was the word she used. Faint praise, I wondered. The Bruckner symphony began very quietly indeed and proceeded majestically through to the Adagio with its use of Wagner tubas, the last pages of which are dedicated to Wagner, whom Bruckner revered; he received news of the ‘Master’s’ death as he was putting the finishing touches on this movement. The climax, almost of the entire symphony, comes unusually and very effectively in the slow movement, with a great crash of the cymbals and the triangle. The Scherzo had plenty of bounce, and the trumpeters could even be seen to swing. It was all most uplifting.
Several principals stood out with fine solo contributions, among them flautist Jacques Zoon, former principal at the Concertgebouw, Boston Symphony and Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Ivo Gass, horn, principal at the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich and Jeroen Berwaerts, virtuoso Belgian trumpeter.
By the end of the work, with its life-enhancing final pages, I added the adjectives ‘meticulous’ and ‘skilful’ to the description of Chailly, but where were the goose bumps? It was all rather slick and smooth: no standing ovation a result.
On the anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, I searched for an anecdote linking Bernstein to Bruckner and found this: When a musical friend asked Lenny why he disliked Bruckner, he (Bernstein) jibed ‘Never reaches a climax’. Bernstein conducted only conducted the Sixth and the Ninth and did not care for the others. He thought the Eight a ‘terrible piece’ but went to the keyboard and played virtually the whole symphony from memory, pointing out the weaknesses he perceived. He didn’t like the piece, never conducted it, yet knew it well enough to play it from beginning to end on the piano. One of a kind.