Mistaken identity

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

26 August 2017

9:00 AM

This year’s Lucerne Festival is given its identity by having as its theme ‘Identity’. Since the word doesn’t mean anything, that isn’t a lot of help. But does a festival have to have a theme? Surely a glut of fine performances of great, or at least interesting, music is enough? Michael Haefliger, the icy artistic director, clearly doesn’t agree, and offers two accounts of identity, one in the general festival booklet, where the emphasis is on refugees and national identity, the other in the programmes for the individual concerts, where he is more metaphysical, and concludes with the hope that by listening to the chosen music we will ‘rediscover ourselves entirely’. The results could be catastrophic.

In the four concerts I attended on successive evenings, I found much to enjoy and one or two things to be moved by. But like most of the audience I didn’t feel as though I was discovering things about myself, or needed to in that context. As a kind of upbeat to the first concert, I went to an ‘open’ rehearsal, lasting about 45 minutes, in which Riccardo Chailly, now director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, gave an exceptionally helpful talk about the two pieces he was rehearsing — Stravinsky’s Chant funèbre, an early piece written as a tribute to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, and the same composer’s Feu d’artifice, which I last saw conducted by Stravinsky in 1965. The Festival Orchestra played each piece straight through, and then Chailly took them through some passages where he wanted improvements. The whole occasion was delightful and enlightening — and free, unlike anything else in Switzerland, which is expensive to an incredible degree.

My first official concert, the same evening, was given by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. As at the recent Prom, he conducted the Prague Symphony, a performance such as might have been given 40 years ago, and none the worse for that. First they played the Haffner, where I hadn’t felt the necessary crisp energy, but that may be to do with the weary expression with which the conductor received his ovation. In between came the five Rückert songs, with the ranking baritone Christian Gerhaher miscalculating the size of the hall. He performed with such intimacy that he was, at crucial poignant moments, inaudible, though he had the measure of the great ‘Um Mitternacht’.

My second and third concerts had that astounding phenomenon the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under their conductor Daniel Barenboim, his son Michael the leader. I regard Barenboim as, all told, the finest and certainly the most versatile musician of our time, and the greatest humanist. In these two concerts he played a repertoire that we don’t associate with him, with mixed results. Of course one spends some time marvelling at the sheer virtuosity of this orchestra, and its accounts of two of Ravel’s most refined scores left nothing to be desired; more impressive yet was its performance of Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, opus 6, which still stuns with the intensity and compression of its violence. What everyone came for was Martha Argerich, who didn’t disappoint. On the contrary she still flabbergasts, in her rendering of Shostakovich’s Concerto for Trumpet, Piano and String Orchestra, with the ritual duet with Barenboim afterwards.

The second of this pair of concerts began with an affectionate account of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, my favourite among the tone poems. The orchestra was up to every onomatopoeic device, with swirling windmill and baa-ing sheep. The noble Don was taken by the first cellist, Kian Soltani, whose identification with the figure he was portraying went so far that ironic distance was lost — but it was lovely. After the interval came quite the crudest and brashest account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony I have ever endured, a mere display of orchestral virtuosity and obedience, greeted with a standing ovation.

The next evening, with the Festival Orchestra under Chailly, began with the Overture and extracts from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The playing of that great orchestra had to be heard to be believed in the delicacy of the opening, and the blend of sound throughout, every player a virtuoso but subordinate to the wonderful music, conducted with freshness and flair. This alone was a concert worth going to Lucerne for.

Just as impressively played, if less impressive in its own right, was Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. No one could claim that this large work — nearly an hour — is a complete success, but there is quite enough fine and striking music in it to sustain interest, and though the old tradition of cutting the longest movements had something to be said for it, a performance like this, verging on the miraculous in terms of colour, flexibility and expression, makes a case for the piece that would surely have stunned the composer.

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