The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, resident in the superb KKL Concert Hall, was founded in 1806 and counts as Switzerland’s oldest symphony orchestra. Its some 70 members embody the motto, “internationally oriented, locally anchored,” and the same might be said for this concert’s major players, the conductor being Spanish; the fine soloist, Chinese-American and the featured composers English and Russian.

George Li
© Simon Fowler

Conducting this configuration for the first time, Juanjo Mena offered a mixed – if somewhat peculiar – repertoire that began with Walton’s 1940 Scapino: A Comedy Overture. The piece was inspired by a 17th-century Jacques Callot engraving that depicts Scapino, the mischievous commedia dell'arte-like figure whose primary task was to arrange amorous interludes for his master. Accordingly, a brash trumpet fanfare launches the work, whose pulsing melodies, marked rhythms and vibrant coloration are matched by what one musicologist appropriately calls a “snickering of the strings”. Strings and horns both enjoy good breathing room, the woodwinds call us to rapt attention. Further, a sharp tambourine gets its due, lending the work something of a circus dynamic. And while played well by all sections under concertmaster Anja Röhn, Walton’s overture itself had all the attributes of 3-D Technicolor blockbuster and little of the nuances and sensitivity of an art film. 

As such, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini fell at the opposite end of the spectrum. To hear the work performed here in Lucerne is always thrilling, since its self-exiled Russian composer crafted the piece in Hertenstein, just a few minutes’ boat ride away, in 1931. Apparently, Rachmaninov often drove his own motor-boat at high speeds on Lake Lucerne, imploring his friends not to tell his wife he’d been doing so. But more exciting today was that the young Chinese-American pianist, George Li, would be tackling the major-league challenge of the Russian’s virtuoso score. 

At just 22, the unassuming, highly gifted Li has already performed with some of the world’s leading orchestras, despite still matriculating at Harvard University and The New England Conservatory. He showed an insightful understanding of Rachmaninov's score and carried his part with exceptional precision, even if in a few instances, he may have wanted to push the tempo a tad faster than the orchestra. His syncopation was spot on, and his muscle-work considerable. Not surprisingly, he had to wipe his brow after a sequence of tumultuous parts, not only because his fingers and arms were moving at such speed over the keys, but because with his right foot on the pedal, his left foot was visibly in dance mode. What’s more, he used his facial muscles, eyebrows and jaw to mark and respond to the moods of his music, a performance full of emotion. 

Last on the programme was Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat major, one of two the composer completed in his lifetime, and which premiered in Manchester in 1908. Within just a year, the symphony’s popularity achieved epic proportions, enjoying over 90 performances in Britain, continental Europe and America. Here in Lucerne, Juanjo Mena was decidedly committed to its burly sound; and his conducting style even morphed into something looser than that he’d used for the previous pieces. 

The symphony makes no apologies for its national hymn-like beginning and big, brassy elements; but in essence, it becomes music all over the map. Granted, the score offers all order of push-pull, volume expansion and flamboyant episodes. In the second movement, melodies were exchanged, repeated and reiterated among the various instrument groups, and solo violin and flute shared one particularly silvery duet. For the most part, however, the tumult of horns and woodwinds came across with “pomp and circumstance” that left me decidedly outside its orbit. That the symphony was so widely popular in 1908 was a startling realisation, given that it spoke more today, at least to me, of somewhat homogenised tempi passati.