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Photo by Peter Fischli/Lucerne Festival
12 Sep 2016

The Changing of the Guard

Last June, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for his last concert as Principal Conductor.

The Changing of the Guard

A review by David Pinedo

Photo by Peter Fischli/Lucerne Festival


Now, he begins his new function as Lucerne Festival’s Music Director. Not only did the epic performance of Mahler’s Eighth initiate his new reign, Chailly also dedicated the performance to Claudio Abbado, the former director, who did not get to complete his Mahler Cycle with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

I attended the second of two concerts. With such a superlative performance, Mr. Chailly has raised the bar high for future editions. Besides the four choirs, the first class soloists including among others Samuel Youn, Andreas Schager, Mihoko Fujimura, and Juliane Banse filling in for Christine Goerke. Although Mahler never approved of its title, with tonight’s large scale ensemble, it really felt like a Symphony for a Thousand.

Abbado created the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, as an ‘orchestra of friends’, assembled from the finest players in the world, including members from the Mahller Chamber Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Teatro della Scala, Staatskapelle Berlin, and even the siblings from the Hagen Quartett. Founded in 2003, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra establishes a connection back to 1938 when Arturo Toscanini formed a similar elite orchestra for his ‘Concert de Gala’.

Mahler divided up his oratorio-opera-symphony into two parts: I. Teil. Hymnus Veni, creator Spiritus. (Allegro Impetuoso) and II. Teil. Schluss-Szene aus Goethes Faust II. As Franz Schaffner gloriously opened the first part on the organ, and the choirs belted out “Veni, Creator Spiritus”, Chailly hooked his audience into the symphony and continued with ceaseless momentum.

Howard Arman’s preparation of the Latvian Radio Choir, Bavarian Radio Choir, Orfeon Donostiarra, and the Tolz Boys Choir, impressed greatly. They added depth and emotional nuance. The night before, at the official opening, Barbara Hannigan delivered the opening address “Equilibrium”, aptly relevant, as Chailly conducted the piece with a fast-paced dynamic, deftly creating an equilibrium between all the musical forces.

Although the musicians of the LFO performed with extraordinary zeal, the one thing lacking was elucidating transparency. With Mahler's dense orchestration, it would have been more impressive with the fabulous acoustics of the KKL Lucerne, to hear more details. Still, the overall upbeat mood invigorated and exhilarated.

Of the soloists, Ricarda Merbeth (Magna Peccatrix), Peter Mattei (Pater ecstaticus), and Sara Mingardo (Mulier Samaritana) stood out the most. Merbeth offered a voluptuous vibrato that feverishly contrasted the choirs. Mattei established a grounded gravitas in his passages, while Mingardo offered a resounding depth with her distinct timbre. That’s not to say that Schager, an impressive Wagner tenor, and Youn, a grounding bass, weren’t impressive, the others just sounded more mellifluous within the musical fold. Schager even had some issues overcoming the intensity of the choir.

A stunning emotional catharsis took place at the end, when Anna Lucia Richter emerged as Mater Gloriosa above the choir next to the organ. Pure and transparent, almost angelic, in just those two lines, she created a deeply moving and gentle emotional release that sounded fabulous after all the Mahlerian fireworks.

The last words of Mahler´s Eighth stem from Goethe’s Faust lauding women: “Das Ewig-Weibliche/Zieht uns hinan” or “The Woman-soul leadeth us/Upward and on”. With all the preceding high-voltage testosterone overflowing, this closure seems a bit ironic. Yet, it also provides the perfect motif for this Prima Donna themed festival. With the focus on female musicians, including eleven conductors, this acknowledgement of women makes for the perfect start to this edition.

Next year, Chailly opens with Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex combined with Rossini´s rarely performed Edipo a Colono. As Principal Conductor of La Scala, does this mean that Lucerne will be including more concert performances of operas? I hope so.

David Pinedo

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