Monday 17 August 2009


The idea, unannounced here because broadcasting your absence on the web is ill-advised, had been to give music a bit of a rest for a fortnight, to swim and walk as much as possible and to spend time with friends in Zurich (again) and Vienna (which we last visited two years ago). Well, we did all those things, but wherever you go in mittelEuropa, a major literary, artistic or musical personage has usually been before. So I found myself attending a Joyce seminar in Zurich and hunting out a great Jewish tenor’s grave by serendipity, being swamped by Beethoven and the waltzing Strausses after idling in a 1920s open-air thermal bath, following in Freud’s footsteps up an Austrian alp and bumping into the last of the great Wienerlied exponents while supping near our friend’s apartment in Vienna’s 8th district. It ended up being as hyperaesthesically giddying as the barley-sugar columns (one reproduced above) of my favourite baroque edifice, the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna - pure theatre to which we managed to pay a flitting homage en route to Cafe Pruckerl for lunch.

Then there were the concerts. The enticement of the European Union Youth Orchestra outdoors in the Lower Austrian estate of Grafenegg cropped up a week before we left; of that, as of the rest above, I’ll tell in later instalments. The grand finale, however, had been long hoped for: a precious ticket for what I already knew, from live experience and several DVDs, to be the greatest concert-going possible even in a time of unbelievable riches (only witness the July Proms I raved about below).

Claudio Abbado has been pulling it off in Lucerne for seven seasons now with his handpicked band – not so much an orchestra as a love-in, as I like to reiterate Daniel Harding telling me when I travelled out for Mahler 7 some years back. The best orchestral players jammed together do not necessarily a great orchestra make – only witness the disastrous meeting of umpteen leaders in the first violin section of the World Orchestra for Peace – but because everyone in the Lucerne Festival Orchestra knows and loves great Claudio even more than we do, it works. Here they are in action on opening night, courtesy of the Festival Office and photographer Georg Anderhub (I was there for the third and final concert airing of the first programme - Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto followed by Mahler's First Symphony).

If your eyesight is especially good, you would not be deceived in thinking that's the great Natalia Gutman bottom left. She comes every year, like the rest of them, for love of Claudio.

For once, I’m lost for words to try and define the sound. Imagine the Berlin Phil at its (former) greatest, with every silky inner and thundering lower line caught to perfection in the amazing KKL Concert Hall, matched to mobility both visible and inwardly informed by the unique Abbado rubato along with deepest passion, and you have some idea of the electricity unleashed on Saturday at the beginning of Mahler’s first big symphonic finale. For all the dewy beauty of the symphony's opening – hard to adjust to when every cough and sweetpaper unwrapper can be heard from afar in the hall’s frighteningly alive acoustics – the feral focus of the country dances and Alois Posch’s eloquent double-bass ‘Bruder Martin’ (aka 'Frere Jacques'), it was this final twenty-minute drama which occasioned my second out-of-body experience in less than a month (after Jurowski's Glyndebourne Tristan, of course). With a mature determination worthy of the march-mania in the Sixth Symphony, Abbado seemed to herald a whole world of experience rather than just going wild with a callow young man’s imagined ‘hero’s life’.

If Mahler had died after writing this, you’d imagine – from Abbado’s performance, at least - that his mission on earth was already perfected. The first glimpse of victory in that brass chorale was more auspicious than I’ve ever heard it, the returning birdsong from the first movement so innocently unexpected, the bite of the violas – led by Professor Wolfram Christ, no less, who also features in the above photo on the right – as the bitter march tries to return terrifying. And the ‘triumphal’, with horns standing and truly resonating for once, had not a hint of banality about it. Many ‘curtain calls’ later, the audience still hadn’t had enough, and as the last of the musicians left the stage embracing each other, as they always do, the platform was left to Abbado to return one last time. An encore rendition of ‘Blumine’ would have been nice, but never mind: the buzz of the crowds leaving the hall was incredible – everyone, even the swankiest and hardest-bitten, galvanised by music-making on the highest level.

Should I go and spoil it a bit by bringing up the Prokofiev? The truly memorable glories of this Third Concerto were the LFO’s and Abbado’s: the elegance of the orchestral gavotte at the start of the theme and variations (though the piano's Variation 1 was also good), the scything woodwind between statements of the finale’s big central tune, the bluesy inner strings just before the final victory crash. But brilliant young Chinese star Yuja Wang isn’t yet the equal of other greats with whom Abbado has recorded this work, Argerich and Kissin.

Wang can be sensitive in soft passages, rather crashing in loud ones, always dexterous and accurate. But this concerto is about the personality Stravinsky so admired in Prokofiev’s music, and that’s concealed, if it really exists, by Wang’s impassive demeanour. Teamwork with the orchestra could have been sharper, too, and I wished she’d been able to enjoy it in the way that a live wire like Simon Trpceski does. Have fun, and show it! As she did rather more markedly in the two encores, a dazzlingly articulated 'Danse Russe' from Petrushka and a wacky transcription, if it may be so described (not Rachmaninov’s, and radically extended, so whose?*), of Rimsky’s ‘Hummelflug’, as the Germans so succinctly call it.

Personal circumstances should perhaps be explained in concert coverage, though your newspaper critic will usually keep mum on that score. I’ll be honest: I was heat-exhausted after an ill-advised afternoon run around Zurich on the hottest day of the year trying to find the Thomas Mann Library and Archive high on a hill before it closed (opening hours are Wednesday and Saturday 2-4pm). I got there with ten minutes to spare, and the janitor was unsympathetic. But the setting, by the university overlooking a lovely kitchen garden, the spires of Zurich and the forested slopes of the Uetliberg, is exquisite.

There's also a 150-year old ‘sommerlinde’ shading the door of this 17th century 'Bodmerhaus' where a literary doyen once hosted Goethe and others.

Maybe there's more to be said on the trees of Zurich; I bought our absent hosts Annie and Carl a marvellous guidebook on the subject, Von Baum zu Baum by Walburga Liebst, and we followed a few of its guidelines before leaving the present for their return.

Well, Mann's study and library are well worth the effort. I was especially struck by the oval portrait of Luther on a table near the desk. An OKish bit of homoerotica by Ludwig von Hofmann hangs on the right wall. The music books include Berlioz's Memoirs and a surprising number of English texts by Newman and the like. The below photo, after much trying out of images, comes courtesy of the Arkiv and its website.

Then I discovered the Lucerne concert started at 6.30pm, not 7.30pm like its two predecessors. A mad dash to the Hauptbahnhof, a restless train journey with sunburnt daytrippers including a teenager drawling ‘mega, mega’ into her mobile phone and an all too transient meeting with Judy Grahame and Tom Service – who I gather in my absence has written up a grand, rare interview with Abbado in The Guardian – left me sweaty and flustered. The high and mighty, mostly rather elderly Lucerne audience was no panacea. Do you know, top tickets for the concert are about £170 - I was offered one extra to buy for J, which I appreciate was hard to find but which between us we could only decline.

I'm not sure that Tom's Guardian readers would really be too impressed by all this glitz, though the point is of course that Abbado does so much for youth elsewhere - and there was a live screening outside the hall on the first night. Two passing tourists whose photo I offered to take in the interval said, ‘ah, so you are with the rich and the beautiful’. No beauty in sight, I responded. ‘Maybe you can find yourself a rich wife’. ‘That I don’t need’, I retorted without further explanation (I’d left the diplo-mate reading under a tree back on Zurich’s Rietberg).

It was, then, a matter of peeling away the layers of irritation and disgruntlement, and the later stages of the Mahler made it all worthwhile. But I must add that the setting IS one of the most beautiful in the world, with mountain ranges closer to the lake than they are in Zurich. Here's a shot from the interval, when the temperature was still in the high twenties.

Over the bridge it was heaving with international touristic youth, far noisier than in the bigger city, but presiding genius Mount Pilatus stood out in calm, majestic outline after the heat of the day. Here it is slightly concealed behind the bright lights and geraniums of the justly celebrated Kapellbrucke:

And now let me go back to the morning and leave you with an image of calm, from our basking in the Rietpark of the Villa Wesendonck just above the Zurich home of Lottie and our goddaughters. I owe you a bit of Wagneriana in a future entry, but for now here’s what we heard from our breakfast in the shade – a practising alphornist, who never stopped for long enough to let me ask any questions or permissions. So I hope he doesn’t mind figuring here. It was at this very moment that I discovered my tiny Olympus could take a little film, which meant I could catch the surprisingly beautiful tone of the alphorn too (Schubert and Strauss wrote songs with a part for it, which I must rediscover). So bear in mind this is practice, albeit public, and excuse the lack of hand-held-camera artistry as well as the brief zoom to the ground when our Held paused and looked round - the low notes and arpeggios are worth holding on for:

*Cziffra's, I later discovered. Never heard it before; have you? Goes Ligetian for a bit - which is interesting, because Wang's recorded some of his Etudes.


The LondonJazz site said...

Envy. The Mahler sounds amazing!

David said...

It was. But it will no doubt come out on DVD like the other Mahler instalments - and I was swept away by several of those just on the screen.

Oddly, I don't know what's happened to the release of last year's Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique from Lucerne. A friend of mine who works at the Conservatoire in Lucerne went, and wept buckets, he said.

Anyway, we have events NEARLY as good here - as I witnessed tonight, swaying in the arena to Esa-Pekka's incredible Ravel double-bill. More anon.

John said...

So now you're a filmmaker too. That's a lovely way to end and a marvellous, full sound, too, I agree. Makes me want to hear some real alphorn pieces.

David said...

Well, John, I've just ordered up a Naxos CD of Alphorn concertos. May outstay its welcome, but worth a go.

Colin Dunn said...

Before I read your entry, I must commend the photo of the Solomonic (barley sugar) column in the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna. A fine piece of Baroque kitsch, and its sheen shown at its best in your photo.

David said...

So, Colin, your art history degree - I assume you've gained it by now - was not in vain.