Highly commendable Bruch and Bruckner at Lucerne

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Lucerne Festival [8] – Bruch, Bruckner: Vilde Frang (violin), Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra / Lahav Shani (conductor), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum (KKL) Luzern, Lucerne, 7.9.2019. (JR)

Vilde Frang (c) Peter Fischli/Lucerne Festival

Bruch – Violin Concerto No.1 Op.26
Bruckner – Symphony No.5 WAB105

As soon as the evening stars (Haitink and Ax) had faded, it was time for the shooting stars to appear, namely Vilde Frang (33) and Lahav Shani (30). Israeli conductor (and pianist) Shani has only been at the helm of the Rotterdamers since last year; next year he will tack on the Principal Conductorship of the Israeli Philharmonic. He is a veritable bundle of energy and should manage both orchestra’s schedules without difficulty.

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang performed Bruch’s First violin concerto. Bruch actually wrote two more and he resented being called a ‘one-hit wonder’; his first concerto overshadowed not only the other two concertos but all his other work (best known amongst them his ‘Scottish Fantasy’ and ‘Kol Nidrei’). Bruch thought his other concertos were ‘good, if not better’ than his First. The public have disagreed; only the First is now ever (regularly) played. Bruch was harsh on his contemporaries, to the point of rudeness, insulting the works of Debussy, Reger, Brahms and even Bach, as well as calling Mahler the ‘Wiener Judenbengel’. (A common misconception – due to his empathy with Jewish tunes – is that Bruch was Jewish, but he has no such ancestry as far as one can tell. Bruch was introduced by his teacher to a Jewish family, the head of which was a rabbi in Berlin, supporting Bruch’s interest in Jewish folk music). He died destitute in 1920, having sold the rights to his violin concerto too quickly, too cheaply, to rogues in America; he was unable to enforce even the meagre royalty payments during the First World War.

Frang delivered many of the intimate, tender sections with eyes closed. She is not an extrovert player and the delicate passages were the ones which impressed most. It was left to Shani to whip up some animation in the orchestra. Frang’s intonation and technique (much double-stopping required) were never for a moment in doubt; the sound of her 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume was honeyed.

I may have got the encore wrong, as I couldn’t hear anything of Frang’s announcement of it from the back of the hall. I believe it was the German national anthem, the ‘Deutschlandlied’ which is actually, my research reveals, a tune by Haydn; Frang played an arrangement by Fritz Kreisler. But reader, if you were also at this concert, do feel free to correct me in the ‘Comments’ section.

Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is an uneven work, but I always enjoy hearing it whenever it gets an outing. Shani’s interpretation was a young man’s Bruckner, perhaps favouring the jarring edges in place of the longer line, and highlighting the pregnant pauses and frequent changes of direction. When Bruckner was challenged about the sudden stops, he retorted that whenever he had something important to say, he would pause for breath. The Finale of the symphony was perhaps the most satisfying, with its giant blocks of sound, the brass pealing their chorale to tremendous effect and the glorious ending. Even if Shani does not – yet – have decades of Bruckner experience, he conducted impressively and without a score and showed evident passion and sensitivity for the composer’s work.

The orchestra put in a highly commendable effort, even if the principal horn smudged a couple of entries. It would be unfair to compare them with the elegant Vienna Philharmonic, whom I heard a few evenings ago; and one cannot compare Bruckner’s Fifth with his superior Seventh, still ringing in my ears. The Rotterdamers remain, I feel, somewhat in the shadow of their illustrious Amsterdam colleagues up the canal (the Concertgebouw Orchestra) but perhaps given such a fine young conductor and the Concertgebouw, temporarily one hopes, still (one year on, after Gatti’s sudden departure) without a Chief Conductor, the gap may be closing.

John Rhodes

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