The hills are alive, indeed. The theme of this year’s Lucerne Festival is “Childhood”, which honoured guest and Federal councillor Ueli Maurer elucidated in his opening remarks. He cited the marvel of music that allows us, as it does children, to be utterly absorbed, the sole and immediate task at hand being to listen. What’s more, he alluded to the degree of fantasy in music that draws all of us into the art. On the heels of that introduction, and under Riccardo Chailly’s baton, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s performance of works by Stravinsky and Mozart not only confirmed that notion, but also nicely fit the familiar Schopenhauer adage: “Every genius is a big child”.

Riccardo Chailly and Lang Lang © Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival
Riccardo Chailly and Lang Lang
© Priska Ketterer | Lucerne Festival

First on the programme was Stravinsky’s neoclassical chamber concerto, Dumbarton Oaks, a work commissioned by a leading American philanthropist, Robert Bliss, and his wife, Mildred, to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Nadia Boulanger, who had brokered the commission, conducted the concerto’s 1938 première in the Bliss’ Washington DC home, whose name the work bears. Eighty years on, the performance in Lucerne also celebrated another important thirtieth anniversary: that of Riccardo Chailly’s first appearance in this city. 

Oddly, however, without the aplomb I thought due. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra performed the chamber concerto’s three movements – in which Stravinsky cited a debt to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos – without a break. While precisely played, and transporting us into a pleasant comfort zone, the piece came across as pallid and predictable, and less than a work that reflected the unchartered curiosity or sparkle we associate with childhood. 

By contrast, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor, brought on lots of surprises, none the least because the work features such a large family of instruments. When it premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1796, the composer himself served both as soloist and, from the keyboard, conductor. Scored for strings, woodwinds, horn, trumpets and timpani, the concerto here in Lucerne also made a rousing celebration of extraordinary talents all these years later, none the least because the featured pianist was Lang Lang, whose childlike spontaneity and enthusiasm are widely acknowledged as infectious. 

As he played, Lang Lang seemed uncannily able to expand his senses of perception, to listen with the tips of his fingers, to leave the keys as quickly as one would a hot plate, to sweep his arm like a dancer behind him after lyrical passages. The gestures weren’t as showy as they were simply graceful, poised, alert and aware. To his great credit, too, he was in almost constant communion with the orchestra, watching the strings, particularly, in a way I’ve rarely seen in a soloist. What’s more, despite the work’s ferocious tempi, his handwork was extraordinary, making it look so easy another mark of his sheer genius. What’s more, for his final bow, genuinely moved by the audience’s appreciation, he took the trouble of acknowledging everyone in the hall, balcony by balcony. Pairs of the orchestra’s oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, also gave him vigorous applause in a rare showing of team support and pride, something in the order of players’ accolades to an Olympian. 

After the interval, a full configuration (including ten cellos, eight double basses and three harps) gave a stellar performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, written for the 1910 Paris season of the Ballets Russes. As Thomas May writes in the programme notes, the ballet’s founder, Sergei Diaghilev, gave the composer access to a large ensemble, which allowed him to exploit fully the “colourful orchestral wizardry” he had learned from his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and ultimately secure a position as Diaghilev’s star composer.

Entirely in his element here in Lucerne, Chailly showed great relish, cueing its precise geometries, jollying the players, sometimes even moving his body like a shimmering reed in shallow water. He pulled out all facets of Stravinsky’s rich tonal spectrum, from the horns and gong in their raw chaos, through the fury of the strings, the haunting bassoon and oboe, even the sparingly-used tuba. Under Chailly’s animated direction, the ballet could dissipate into something almost inaudible, then rise up again like a furious wind. Gripping, full of colour, contrasts and anticipation, listening to Stravinsky's music interpreted by Chailly was almost like revisiting childhood and growing up all over again.

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