Switzerland Lucerne Festival  – Debussy, Sibelius, Chausson, Ravel, Shostakovich: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL), Lucerne, 31.8.2019. (JR)
Debussy – Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune
Sibelius – Serenade No. 2 for violin and orchestra Op.69
Chausson – Poème for violin and orchestra Op.25
Ravel – Tzigane
Shostakovich – Symphony No.10 Op.93
Rather than perform the usual violin concerto in the first half of this concert, ‘artiste étoile’ (artist-in-residence to you and me) Leonidas Kavakos selected three of his favourite works for violin and orchestra: something solemn and brooding, something lush and evocative and some gypsy fun. But before that the members of the Mariinsky showed off their orchestral colours in Debussy’s well-known piece, which Boulez famously described as the ‘awakening of modern music’. Gergiev took an extremely languorous yet masterly view of the score, so we could feel the balmy heat of the afternoon; it was all a hazy dream. It began as quietly as Gergiev could get his players to play: the excellent harpist stood out. As did the flute, but that is a given in this work. It was all exceptionally beautiful. The ultra-slow tempo did however mean that the central passage dragged, which was a pity. Gergiev employed his usual toothpick of a baton; is there a shorter baton in the business? His almost constantly fluttering left hand I find a distraction; I suspect his seasoned players, by now, just ignore it.
Kavakos’s first choice was a Sibelius Serenade. This was all Nordic chill and gloom. The work opens with a long, plaintive lament from the solo violin. After a very short, livelier section, the fog descends again. Despite faultless playing, it rather left me cold – but perhaps that was the idea?
Chausson’s Poème is not often performed hereabouts, and I found it unfamiliar. It is described as a lush piece but the Mariinsky’s strings lack much bloom – the orchestra had the misfortune to follow hard on the heels of two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic and one could not fail to compare. The meandering piece failed to grab my attention. It may be evocative, but of what? No images came to my mind in this performance.
The undoubted piece de résistance came before the interval in the shape of Ravel’s lively Tzigane. This allowed Kavakos to show off his considerable technique; his usual cool exterior almost gave way to some smiles. The other star was his ‘Willemotte’ Stradivarius, a glorious instrument especially on the lower strings. Ravel described the piece as ‘a virtuoso piece in the style of a Hungarian rhapsody’. Kavakos refrained from stomping in the manner of Nigel Kennedy, but it was barnstorming stuff and duly brought the house down.
The second half brought us Shostakovich’s mighty and impressive Tenth Symphony, a favourite of the composer’s symphonies for many. After he had been condemned by the Soviet authorities in 1936 and again in 1948, Shostakovich delayed the publication of any further symphonies until Stalin was well out of the way, which meant waiting for his death. He feared further works deemed offensive to Stalin could lead to his imprisonment, or worse. He had to wait until 1953 before he could see his Tenth Symphony performed. It is an ambiguous work. Musicologists are divided as to whether there are references to Stalin but all agree the final ending indicates a hollow victory rather than optimism. Gergiev made this clear in his gripping and bitter interpretation.
Russian orchestras have the ability to inject acerbic bite into their playing like no other orchestras; that is, sadly, often accompanied by some rough edges and this performance was no exception. On a more positive note, the bassoons were lugubrious, the militaristic passages sounded frighteningly authentic. The thrilling opening onslaught in the Scherzo was a case in point – the excellent side-drummer did not hold back. Pity it was all over in a flash.
The slow movement cleverly dwells on Shostakovich’s musical signature (D-S-C-H). I was taken by the shrill and piercing sound of the piccolo; the charismatic guest leader Lorenz Nasturica-Herschcowici (what a name, what a player: he was principal concertmaster under Celibidache in the 1990s at the Munich Philharmonic) made a huge impression, too, on his ‘Rodewald’ Strad.
After the slow opening of the final movement in which the principal oboe impressed with his tone and circular breathing, it was a headlong rush towards the work’s shattering final climax. By way of encore, the closing pages of the Firebird, which never fails.
All in all, a very satisfying concert indeed.