Meticulous Mahler from Chailly and the Remarkable Lucerne Festival Orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [2] – Mahler: Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne, 24.8.2019. (JR)

Riccardo Chaillly (c) Marco Borggreve

Mahler – Symphony No.6

Yet another magnificent concert to savour from Lucerne Festival’s resident Festival Orchestra under their Principal Conductor, Riccardo Chailly. Chailly is a known quantity and quality when it comes to Mahler, yet there was plenty of evidence that, even with such an elite band of players, a great deal of meticulous rehearsal had gone into this performance; remarkable in a week when the orchestra had also performed Rachmaninov’s Third and Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphonies.

The perfect acoustics of the KKL assisted, no doubt, in uncovering some of the thicker textures in this work, normally left indiscernible. We heard every note.

With the onslaught of Shostakovich’s Fourth still ringing in my ears, the militaristic march at the opening of Mahler’s Sixth almost sounded tame in comparison, but Chailly quickly unleashed the bitterness of this gripping symphony. Mahler composed this work in the summers of 1903 and 1904 in his hideaway hut on the shore of the Austrian Wörthersee, surrounded by spectacular Alpine vistas. He ought to have been deliriously happy: he was, after all, at the height of his powers and influence as Director of the Opera in Vienna; he had recently married the beautiful Alma Schindler who had just given birth to his second daughter, Anna. And yet, a worrier by nature (rightly so as it turned out), his wife’s flirtatious nature made him uneasy and he had premonitions about childhood death (Mahler composed his Kindertotenlieder between 1901 and 1904, and in fact his oldest daughter, Maria, died a few years later) and perhaps also felt the start of his heart condition which led to his premature death not so many years later.

The Sixth is sometimes subtitled the ‘Tragic’, although the composer himself did not bestow such an official title on the work. Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern were all fascinated by the symphony; Thomas May, in his excellent programme note, reminds us that Berg, in his Three Pieces for Orchestra includes a large hammer in its unusual orchestration.

Chailly’s choice of dynamics and tempi were judicious throughout. Surprisingly, Chailly seems to have changed his mind about the sequence of the inner movements. As Simon Rattle does, Chailly chose to play the Andante first, before the Scherzo; the debate on this topic rages on. Mahler was unsure which was best.

In the slow movement, the woodwind’s playing was exquisite, Chailly keeping the orchestra as quiet as he could. In the nightmarishly grotesque Scherzo, the brass made their mark. Principal horn Ivo Gass (Principal with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, just down the road from Lucerne) was the undisputed star of the show, with his creamy tone and not one lip fault in sight; closely followed, yet again, by trumpeter Professor Reinhold Friedrich, whose bright-toned instrument always shone through like a beacon. Friedrich was star trumpet for nearly twenty years at Frankfurt’s Radio Symphony Orchestra (Hessischer Rundfunk). Friedrich, when not playing, was visibly itching to conduct the work.

With so many players with the Concertgebouw and Mahler Chamber Orchestra, this was an orchestra audibly brimming with Mahler experience. The tinkling cowbells sounded as though they had just been brought off the nearby mountainsides of the Rigi or the Pilatus; Chailly made sure, by placing them around the hall, that they were heard. The hammer player tried hard not to look too theatrical as he strode slowly and solemnly towards the huge and prominent hammer sitting on a huge box, but failed: I thought he looked like Elektra’s brother Orest arriving to carry out a dastardly act. Apparently, the hammer they used in rehearsal – much heavier than the one actually used in performance – had managed to break the box; the much lighter replacement made more of a thwack than a deep thud, but that is my only very minor quibble with an otherwise truly magnificent performance. The hammer blows still managed to jolt a few dozing listeners out of their seats – great fun to watch.

John Rhodes

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