THE WANDERER'S CHRONICLE
14 August 2003
Wagner: The Valkyrie
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Here we are the latest addition to the family of orchestras founded by Claudio Abbado was christened on August 14th in Lucerne. It is the logical conclusion to the artistic route followed by Claudio Abbado. Made up of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (which itself grew out of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, both founded in their time by Abbado) but also of musicians from Europe’s best orchestras (Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic), great soloists (Natalia Gutman, the Hagen Quartet, the Ensemble Sabine Meyer), young promising instrumentalists and music students, this a priori heterogeneous group has one mutual interest: the desire to make music with Claudio Abbado. It is an orchestra composed of young professionals surrounded by great soloists or leaders like Georg Faust (cello, Berlin Philharmonic), Emmanuel Pahud (flute, Berlin Philharmonic), Kolja Blacher (soloist, ex-Berlin Philharmonic), Rainer Kussmaul (ex-Berlin Philharmonic). In one word: it resembles a sort of unfindable phalanx.
In their midst: a radiant, rested, enthusiastic Claudio Abbado.
The idea behind this cycle of concerts is clear: the musicians get together in Lucerne for three weeks (two weeks of rehearsals, one week of concerts). They present music in all its forms symphonic concerts, chamber music in orchestral form, quintets, quatuors... The soloists and the other formations included in the orchestra (i.e. Hagen Quartet) also give concerts on their own (or with other soloists like Radu Lupu for example).
The Lucerne Festival was founded by Arturo Toscanini in 1938 to compete with Salzburg, at that time in the hands of the nazis. It is an exclusively symphonic festival. Operas, if at all, being in concert form only. The greater part of these concerts take place in the Culture and Convention Centre, Jean Nouvel’s master stroke. The backbone of the festival is the idea of “orchestras in residence”. So this year will see the appearance of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Concertgebouw...
Right from the beginning and until 1993 Lucerne Festival had its own orchestra, the Schweizerisches Festspielorchester and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra takes up the thread.
The concerts of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra are dedicated mostly to music written around the turn of the last century (Wagner, Debussy, Mahler). We recognize here Claudio Abbado’s artistic affinities and his habit of following up the connections between composers. But chamber music is also on the programme, thus the inclusion of J. S. Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos.
The inaugural gala concert consisted of music by Wagner and Debussy. The first, very short part contained the final scene of “The Valkyrie” and the second, much longer half a suite from ”Le Martyre de St. Sebastien” and “La Mer”. Bryn Terfel had already sung the final scene in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic in November 2000 (and recorded it at the same time). “La Mer” is a recent favorite of Abbado. But to the best of our knowledge it is the first time he has conducted the “Martyrdom of St. Sebastian”, based on an esoteric mystery play by Gabriele d’Annunzio and very rarely performed.
The final scene of “The Valkyrie” enables us to imagine what a Ring conducted by Claudio Abbado, dream of all music lovers, might sound like. Above all: let the text be heard clearly! Bryn Terfel, with his very clear diction, seems the ideal Wotan for this conception. He can soften, humanize his voice so that the text can be understood even if on that first night his voice sounded a bit strained, less spectacular than we have heard it before. The orchestra, on the other hand, sparkled. Problems of homogeneity could have been expected but there were no signs of them. Instead: commitment, enthusiasm, attention. Abbado refuses a spectacular approach, prefers rather something resembling an interior monologue. The orchestra purrs, the harp is more in evidence than the brass. Everything is extremely light and when Brünhilde is sent to sleep this only serves to demonstrate the fine boundary between sound and silence. The Magic Fire Music and the final scene are the transposition into sound of an impressionist painting. This sound seems composed of thousands of small notes melted into one but where nevertheless at the same time each single note is of major importance. At the end the traditional prolonged silence, the “Stille nach der Musik” so dear to Abbado. This shows that the audience has understood the conductor’s intentions. Great moment.
Hardly ever performed the “Martyre de St. Sebastien” is based on a mystery play by Gabriele d’Annunzio. In this hall, which through its form and height vividly reminds us of a cathedral (memories of the La Pietà church in Venice, relatively speaking, immediately come to mind) a choral piece with a religious connotation automatically leaves its marks. For a few years now Claudio Abbado has been trying to underline the musical impression through visual effects. To this end various lighting effects were used, the orchestra, the choir and the soloists were placed on different levels. This time it was the cor anglais and one of the two soloists. Also the choir once turned around and sung with their back towards us.
The choice of works appears more clearly now. Thus it is possible to highlight the merits of the orchestra Kolja Blacher’s violin, the sumptuous sixteen cellos led by Georg Faust and Natalia Gutman, Emmanuel Pahud’s flute (not forgetting Chiara Tonelli)... The permanent straining of the limit of sound, the pianissimi of the violins penetrating ever further towards silence, the demand on the harp and the woodwind, the interventions of the brass all this goes to show that justice has not been done to this piece before. Abbado’s orchestra sounds remarkably transparent due in part to the extraordinary acoustic of the hall.
The choir, on stage during all the concert to mark the cohesion of the whole evening although they only sing in the “Martyre de St. Sebastien”, make a very consistent impression. This cultural approach is typical of Claudio Abbado.
Finally: “La Mer”, symphonic poem modestly called “three symphonic sketches” by Debussy. It would be tempting to mention all the players in the woodwind, the brass, the cellos, the double-bass... There is an extraordinary energy that emanates from the whole ensemble but at the same time the contribution of every member individually is incredible. The visible pleasure everybody had was palpable, so much so that after the final crescendo (and we know Abbado’s crescendos ever since his Rossini performances) an incredible crescendo full of precision and tension the audience could not refrain from blaring out its enthusiasm.
To sum up: we have witnessed a happy birth, due no doubt to friendship and the sheer joy of making music together. But as ever Abbado has reminded us that the arts are a unity. We have been given a beautiful impressionist panting, set to music, which has showed us yet again that the world is a dark and deep whole.