Even before the concert began, there was reason for great applause and good spirits. For the annual Credit Suisse Young Artist Award citation is no trifle. As Michael Haefliger, Executive and Artistic Director of the festival explained, its winner not only receives a whopping CHF 75,000 in prize money, but also enjoys a premier solo performance at the Lucerne Festival, in this case, with the esteemed Vienna Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Möst conducting.

Kian Soltani, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Manuel Ajans | Lucerne Festival
Kian Soltani, Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Manuel Ajans | Lucerne Festival

Austrian-Persian cellist Kian Soltani played Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, contending that with it, "You can show so much, all facets of cello playingall levels of interpretation”. Today, the highly charged and eminently lyrical concerto is widely considered a masterpiece of the cello repertory. It was written in the mid-1890s during Dvořák’s three-month stay as director of New York City’s National Conservatory of Music. At the time, the composer’s cellist friend, Hanuš Wihan – who had encouraged him initially to write the piece – tried to alter the solo part considerably, but the composer insisted on retaining his version, which was premiered in London in 1896. 

Having heard the piece shortly before his death, Johannes Brahms purportedly said that had he known it was possible to write such a cello concerto, he would have tried to compose one himself. Soltani mastered the work's highly dramatic moments with bravura and terrific physicality. His body coiled and retracted over his resonant 1694 Stradivari; his bowing often ended in a majestic sweep. Nor did he shy away from pointedly dramatic facial expressions, which – whether seeming to ask a question, cement an affirmation, portray some anxiety – underscored the emotive impact of the score, much like an Indian dancer uses his wide-open eyes to tell his movements’ story. 

Yet such dynamic expression in the work is also tinged with melancholy: when Dvořák had finished the concerto, and not long after returning to Prague, he learned of the death of his one-time heartache and later, sister-in-law, Josefina. Both in the slow movement and coda, he incorporated the theme of her favourite song theme, “Leave Me Alone”, as a tribute to her memory.

Welser-Möst seemed somewhat planted on the podium, shifting only from side to side except for the moments he stepped forward to turn his score’s pages. Nevertheless, under his direction, the players consistently gave the music accuracy and polish. Various musical dialogues were nothing short of stellar, and the woodwinds, horn, and solo flute deserve particular accolades. As an encore, Soltani capitalized on the “Josefina theme” in a piece he arranged and played with select of the orchestra’s cellists, giving the audience an upbeat, if somewhat saccharin and easy-listening adaptation.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Manuel Ajans | Lucerne Festival
The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Manuel Ajans | Lucerne Festival

Johannes Brahms’ Second Symphony followed, a work begun during a stay on the Wörthersee in the summer of 1877. The success of his First Symphony had boosted Brahms’ confidence, and as early as in that December, the Second Symphony’s highly-acclaimed preimère performance charmed Vienna. Interestingly, it wasn’t until decades later that music critics in America gave it other than highly acidic reviews. 

In the first of the symphony’s four movements here in Lucerne, the flute and oboe again excelled, ably holding their own against the volume of the whole orchestra. The joie de vivre and sense of serenity that mark the work come to the fore in the first movement’s horn and tutti swells which felt like a welcome walk in a rich forest. The second movement was marked by its tender themes for strings: the third, in which the oboes and clarinet excelled, included folkloristic tunes that had the flavour of Hungarian gypsy bands. All three movements ended quietly, but made way for the fourth’s ultimate wake-up call and brilliant finale. In it, Welser-Möst was more animated and relaxed, seemingly entirely at home. Over the great exuberance of the horns that end the work, he stood with his back to the larger audience, arms spread out like those of the great “Christ the Redeemer” on the peak above Rio de Janeiro. And rightly so, for Brahms’ Second played as celestially as “the Wiener” did in Lucerne is about as close to Heaven as it gets.