Music: Musical Spring in Lucerne

Since 1938, Lucerne, Switzerland, has been the venue for one of the world’s famous music festivals, attracting each summer the highest-caliber orchestras, soloists, and conductors. Ten years ago, the International Festival of Music Lucerne expanded its program to include a spring session, which, this year, coincided with the week and a half preceding Palm Sunday. As a guest of the festival from April 12-16, I can report that Lent in Lucerne was a profoundly moving musical experience. The repertoire, which director Michael Haefliger told me was chosen in consultation with the visiting artists, could hardly have been more apt, considering both the liturgical time of year and the fact that this is the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s death.

Bach’s music dominated the festival, which included two full evenings of his orchestral works and concluded on Palm Sunday with a stunning performance of the St. John Passion. Added to that were performances of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words (choral version), Mozart’s Kyrie and Ave verum corpus, and, completely new to me, a substantial and thrilling oratorio, The Vision of Isaiah, by Swiss 20th-century composer Willy Burkhard. The festival was peppered with other works outside of the Bach/Lenten theme that provided welcome variety, such as Mozart’s Violin Concerto, magnificently played by Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

I should begin my impressions of the festival, which began four days before my arrival, by saying that this trip was a long overdue return to Switzerland, in which I had lived for two years in the mid-80s. I had never, however, had the chance to spend any significant time in Lucerne, which is in a Catholic part of Switzerland. The town, which includes large extant portions from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is one of the most charming in Switzerland and thus in Europe. Its beautiful lakeside setting looks out on a spectacular view of the Alps across the lake to the south.

To the north still stand the town’s crenellated medieval walls and impressive guard towers. Untouched by two world wars, Switzerland’s medieval and Renaissance heritage was never destroyed, making it an indispensable site for those interested in either period. Lucerne is also a reminder of how Christian Europe used to be. At the corner of one building is a bas-relief of the Agony in the Garden. The entire facade of another is decorated with a stucco of the Last Supper (painted as late as 1923). Plague columns dedicated to the Virgin or the saints stand in the town squares.

Another reminder greeted me in my lodgings at the Hotel Hofgarten near the Hof Church, one of eight Catholic churches in this small town. A substantial part of my normally sized room was taken up by a large, hand-painted tile stove such as I have seen only in 17th-and 18th-century palaces or museums. It was beautifully decorated with depictions of Old Testament scenes and prophets as well as Christ and the apostles. When I inquired about this curiosity, I was informed that the three small houses, joined together to make up the 28-room Hofgarten, used to be retirement homes for the priests from the monastery that once adjoined the Hof Church.

I approached my first concert Wednesday night in the Jesuit Church, a Baroque jewel, with some apprehension. Before leaving Washington, I had called the Swiss cultural attaché in New York, Patricia Schramm, a friend from my previous stay in Switzerland, whose father had been at that time director of the festival. When I asked about the character of Burkhard’s music, which I had never heard of, she said, “Somewhat like Honneger, only drier.” Since no one has ever wished Honneger’s music to be drier than it is, I thought I was in for a somewhat antiseptic work. However, Burkhard’s oratorio, The Vision of Isaiah, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, turned out to be a very impressive piece that succeeded in capturing the visionary nature of its text (as best as I could make out since, unfortunately, the libretto, from Isaiah, Martin Luther, and Johann Leon, was only in German, which I do not read).

Burkhard showed his musical roots in Bach in the beautiful part-writing but deployed an impressive orchestral power that was 20th century, or perhaps even 19th, in character. Curiously enough, some of Burkhard’s orchestral and choral tutti brought to mind the magnificent prologue to Arrigo Boito’s opera, Mefistofele. Though not as orchestrally colorful as Boito’s, Burkhard’s piece at times displayed the same extraordinary lift and heft, fully capable of expressing awestruck terror and visionary exaltation, in his case with impressive contributions from the double bass and timpani.

Written in sections that often ended in dramatic crescendos, The Vision of Isaiah is a traditionally tonal work of solid construction. Perhaps a bit lacking in the kind of melodic distinction that would put it in the highest rank, it certainly does not deserve its general neglect or its only local reputation. It could hardly have been better served than by conductor Alois Koch and his forces, which included various soloists, the Lucerne Academy Choir, and the Domkapelle Berlin. My first exposure to Burkhard’s music will lead me to search out his 1951 Mass, which is apparently available on a Jecklin CD (JD 6870).

The next two days’ concerts took place in Lucerne’s new concert hall, contained within the very modern culture and congress center. The exterior of the building has as its only aesthetic partner the ugly adjoining train station, the appearance of which is at least relieved by a free-standing arch at its front, topped by 19th-century bronze figures (this no doubt served as the entrance to the original station).

The new congress center has an enormous, gently cantilevered roof that is flush with the right side of the building as you face it but juts out more than 100 feet beyond the left side. With no visible means of support, the left side of the roof expresses a permanent state of unresolved tension. Will gravity take it downward, or will a strong alpine wind lift it up and away like some impossibly huge pterodactyl wing? It is hard to rest one’s eye on a building that is asking these questions, or narcissistically inviting the obvious and obnoxious answer: “Look at me, a modern engineering feat!”

Though a jar to the otherwise charming lakeside architecture, the new center has interior compensations. The exteriors of the vestibules are entirely sheathed in glass, permitting stunning views of the city across the river and the lake. The concert hall, which rises up four balcony levels, has the shape of the inside of a giant cello. Its walls are decorated with variegated white acoustic tile and the floors and stage with blond wood and trim, making for a very bright, cheerful space. It is not only attractive; it is an acoustic triumph, providing excellent sound to all vantage points.

This might be a good point at which to mention another considerable attraction to concert-going in Lucerne. The Swiss audiences with which I sat were the quietest I have experienced in years. Whether out of reverence for the music or from the forces of social conformity does not matter. They provided the indispensable silence out of which the music could emerge. (I rarely go to concerts in the United States anymore because audiences seem to regard them as part of their home entertainment centers and behave accordingly.)

Thursday and Friday’s concerts were dedicated to Bach’s orchestral works: the First and Third Brandenburg Concertos, the First and Second Overtures (Suites), the Concerto for Violin and Oboe, and four of the keyboard concertos (BWV 1052, 1053, 1055, and 1056). American pianist Murray Perahia conducted the concertos from the keyboard and the rest from the podium.

Perahia’s approach to Bach was mellow and highly lyrical. He and the Camerata Academica Salzburg did not have any revolutionary approaches to Baroque practices; they were not pedantically instructing us in how the music ought to be played, as do some original instrument groups. Rather, they reminded the audience that this music was written to delight and entertain. Perahia trusted the music to reveal its own beauty, allowing it to breathe naturally. In fact, he conducted it as if he were breathing it (and he never hyperventilated).

He and the Camerata played Bach con amore, without romanticizing him. As a result, the music glowed. These concerts were also a reminder that, in listening to Bach, it is a great advantage to be able to seethe counterpoint as well as to hear it. Perahia’s direction was a clear guide to the audience as well as the orchestra, though his gestures were never overdone. This helped the listener grasp the extraordinary richness of this music which, even in the highest fidelity recordings, can go by in a blur.

In the keyboard concertos, which I vastly prefer on the piano rather than the harpsichord for which they were written, Perahia displayed his legendary feather-light touch and refinement. His playing was exquisitely shaded and lyrical, at times poignant, without being precious or mannered. Perahia was inside the music and a servant to it. The music radiated joy and warmth. By always hewing to the lyrical line, Perahia offered the opposite of what many came to admire in Glenn Gould, whose playing stressed each note as a nearly freestanding entity, however rapidly the notes might come in succession, thus imparting to the music a certain mechanical hum.

Saturday night’s concert with La Petite Bande and the Collegium Vocale Ghent, under director Sigiswald Kuijken, was suitably set in the Jesuit Church for the devotional character of the works performed. Kuijken and his group are among the best-known and highly regarded original instrument specialists. Kuijken first performed two short pieces by Mozart, the Ave verum corpus (K 618) and the Kyrie (K 341). The Kyrie is one of the most moving and grief-laden ever written. Kuijken’s and his forces penetrated to the heart of this work in a weighty, sublime performance.

The major work of the evening, The Seven Last Words, is one of Haydn’s best-known works—so popular in its day that he presented it in four versions, for orchestra, string quartet, solo piano, and choir. I have been most familiar with it and love it dearly in the quartet format but was eager to hear a live performance of the version for soloists, choir, and orchestra. In the orchestral introduction, Kuijken began with the same kind of deeply expressive, grief-laden power that he had evoked in the Kyrie. The orchestra produced a finely detailed, carefully sculpted sound, each strain of which was carefully layered in.

But, in the early choral sections, what was grief-laden soon became leaden because Kuijken seemed to come to a full stop after each phrase. The stops became so exaggerated that they began to lose their expressive power. The performance threatened to sink under its own weight. Each moment was beautiful in its own right and the choir sang seraphically. But a succession of gorgeous moments hanging suspended by themselves, no matter how deeply felt, robs this music of any sense of forward motion, which is especially deadly during seven successive adagios

Just as I was beginning to think this would be the longest The Seven Last Words on record, Kuijken picked up the tempo at the Fifth Word and maintained the forward motion from then on in what became an exciting performance. The blazing last movement showed what Kuijken and his excellent forces are capable of and also demonstrated with what deliberation he had proceeded from beginning to end. To my mind, he miscalculated in the first half of this moving masterpiece.

The triumph and end of the festival came with a performance on Palm Sunday of Bach’s St. John Passion, performed by the Arnold Schonberg Choir and the Concentus Musicus Vienna, under conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt. As this took place in the Jesuit Church, the interior of which is aflame with the ardor of Baroque Catholic faith, I could not help thinking: the Reformation and the Counter Reformation—together at last (how particularly moving in light of the major recent moves toward the reconciliation of Catholicism and Lutheranism).

From the start, as the weeping strings indicated, the orchestral forces were alive to every dynamic. The singing of the Arnold Schonberg Choir was beyond praise and powerfully expressive, particularly in the crowd scenes. These are often sung with a skippy buoyancy that belies their disturbing subject matter. Under Harnoncourt’s direction, these choruses took on a hair-raising, almost surreal horror that communicated the underlying evil of what they were calling for. At the same time, the choir was ineffably moving in the meditative choruses reflecting on what had just occurred. This is a Passion seen most of all from the viewpoint of the sinners who cause it and then realize that the horrible thing they have done is the source of their own salvation.

The soloists were also outstanding, especially the basses and the mezzo-soprano. As Christ, bass Robert Holl was so powerful that I thought he might overwhelm the role. This Christ was angry when he was struck before the high priest. It was no wonder that the mob in the garden fell back when he announced, “I am He.” This, Holl made completely believable; yet he was also able to sing with moving tenderness in the scenes from the cross, as Christ gives Mary and John to each other. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kolena was a last-minute replacement for Elisabeth von Magnus, and she rose to the occasion. After what sounded like some shaky ensemble at her first entrance, all went well. She was most effective in her poignant delivery of the key aria, “Es ist volbracht (It is finished)!” This was a masterwork of faith brought to life by dedication and ardor. It was a privilege to be there.

In fact, gratitude for the privilege is what I felt for the whole experience of my musical pilgrimage to Lucerne. To have days at a time filled by nothing but music, performed by the finest musicians in an idyllic setting, is more than a treat; it is a dream, except I was awake. Michael Haefliger has already announced the month long program for the summer festival, August 17 to September 16. It will feature 26 symphony orchestra concerts and various solo, chamber, late-night, and outdoor concerts.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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