In 1972, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements gained popularity when choreographer George Balanchine used it as a score for New York City Ballet. Yet its history precedes that date by more than a quarter of a century. Stravinsky composed the symphony during his self-exile in Hollywood, at which time when he was composing regularly for the film industry. In 1946, though, when premiering the Symphony in Three Movements with the New York Philharmonic, he said the music reflected an “arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope,” alluding to World War 2. As such, the work is marked by major outbursts and explosives.

Mariss Jansons © Brescia & Amisano
Mariss Jansons
© Brescia & Amisano

Here in Lucerne, part of this year's Easter Festival, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Mariss Jansons' seasoned baton, released tremendous fury in the first movement, which was heralded by timpani strikes and piano injections that were as much of a wake-up-call as they were a direct hit in the gut. Oboe and flute teased one another, intertwining with the larger orchestral sound, and in several instances the score’s jagged, syncopated rhythms called to mind the savage agitation of the composer’s legendary Sacre du printemps some forty years earlier. The symphony’s second movement backed off from marked primitivism, an airy bassoon seeming to pace and pump a lighter fare, which even included a regular march tempo. The harp, too, released us from some of the violent turbulence that characterises the first movement. Yet the third and final movement, like the first, was again wrought with marked mood contrasts and bombastic turmoil. Its high drama made the stirring ending that Lucerne Festival’s English programme editor Thomas May has cited as being as “abrupt as it is convulsive”.

Second in the evening’s programme was Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto. Both as contemporary and musical rival to the phlegmatic Beethoven, Hummel wrote this concerto for Viennese trumpet virtuoso Anton Weidinger, inventor of the three keyed-trumpet. Hummel conducted the concerto’s 1804 première to mark his appointment as de facto successor to Kapellmeister Joseph Haydn in Prince Esterházy’s court orchestra. In Lucerne, celebrated Austrian trumpeter Martin Angerer took the solo part, seeming entirely at ease on the stage, and showed his virtuosic skills in a clarion, even playfully agreeable tone. Compared to the number of concertos written for piano and violin in the same period, of course, the chances for a trumpeter to shine as soloist are slim. But Hummel's orchestration itself seemed somewhat mundane and predictable, the music decidedly ordinary after the grip of the powerfully emotive Stravinsky. Granted, here was a much smaller configuration of players… three double basses, for example, as opposed to the eight we had enjoyed in the symphony. Nevertheless, the BRSO gave a tidy performance within which Angerer could demonstrate his virtuosic skills, but it didn’t surprise me when my neighbour quipped that, after the Stravinsky, the concerto felt like “like blood sausage after river trout”.

Interestingly, Beethoven’s Mass in C minor that came after the interval also has a vital Esterházy connection. Although the Prince commissioned it, he was also unabashedly critical of it, calling it “ridiculous and abominable” after its première under the composer’s baton in 1807. Esterházy may have hoped for more explosives; Beethoven, however, justified it as a work that underscored peace in a war-torn era. The programme notes cite musicologist Birgit Lode’s assessment of the work’s focus as one which “lies neither on God nor on the princes, but rather on the human being entering the church, in whom emotions should be stirred and devotion awakened”. And here, the Mass poignantly emanated just that sense. Jansons’ highly animated, almost elfin conducting, made for a tightly calibrated performance. The choir – whose able direction can be credited to Howard Arman – gave the work precision and equilibrium, as did the creamy harmonies of the four soloists. While Soprano Julia Kleiter’s voice carried somewhat irregularly across the huge configuration of musicians, and bass Florian Boesch, too, could have afforded greater volume, Gerhild Romberger’s rich mezzo-soprano in Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis (Thou who takest away the sins of the world)” was as poignant as I’ve heard in many a mass. What’s more, Christian Elsner’s silvery tenor lent an angelic texture to the musical weave that left us all deeply moved.