The dynamic Yannick Nézet-Séguin recently debuted with the celebrated Lucerne Festival Orchestra, choosing two brilliant works that had both suffered decade-long delays between their composition and general acceptance. Completed in 1807, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major was premiered that same year, but since its first performance met with a largely negative reaction, it only returned to the concert hall in 1844. Likewise, Dmitri Shostakovich – fearing the reaction the Soviet authorities might give his Fourth Symphony, and not wanting to expose the orchestra players to that pressure – filed it in a drawer shortly before what was to have been its first performance in 1936. It stayed right there for almost 25 years before its 1961 premiere in Moscow.

Leonidas Kavakos, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, this year's Lucerne Summer Festival’s artiste étoile, joined the LFO in the Beethoven concerto, and showed himself both a superb musician and companionable fellow. During the performance on his exquisite 1734 “Willemotte” Stradivarius, Kavakos often turned to engage face-to-face with the orchestra members, his back momentarily facing the larger audience. But no one took umbrage at his lack of showiness or allure, because his flourishes were light, his fingering precise, and his ability to shift the moods and colours of Beethoven’s Olympian repertoire in complete collaboration with the orchestra, was far too admirable. Indeed, the compassion he infused into the score, his repartee with the players, and his unabated energy showed him an étoile of the first order.

The orchestra too was stellar. Nézet-Séguin conducted the configuration with his hands only – no baton – which made his gestures that much more intimate, more like an animated conversation. Like Kavakos, Nézet-Séguin fostered a unique sense of companionship with the orchestra; when Kavakos played a brief encore after the concerto, he simply grabbed a place on an empty chair among the players, just like any other colleague.

After the interval, the great marathon of Shostakovich’s Fourth brought no fewer than 120 musicians to the stage. Fearing the 1936 work would be accused of being a “muddle instead of music” as Joseph Stalin had denounced Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Shostakovich withdrew the symphony during preliminary rehearsals. But the work went on to enjoy a firm place in the symphonic catalogue after its 1961 premiere in Moscow, even if its cacophonic dynamism still makes it ruthlessly difficult to play and, for some audiences, a challenge to digest. That was hardly the case in Lucerne.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

In a pre-concert interview Nézet-Séguin cited the Fourth as a “pessimistic, tough, brutal and raw work” and indeed, the symphony’s bombastic beginning set the stage for huge fireworks. In the first movement alone, the contrasts were many: an almost Romantic interlude was followed by a great crash of cymbals, then the resonant bassoon gave its first, haunting solo. From the start, the work showed itself strikingly athletic and full of trajectories. A melancholic line by the strings gave way to meandering winds, while the flute would follow it with the antics of a chirping bird.

At one point, from behind a raging sea of strings, the players almost seeming to slash their instruments with their bows, the drums pushed a march tempo, the volume rising unabatedly. The contrasts of moods and sheer power of the configuration were explosive.

The symphony’s second movement featured a four-note phrase echoing among the instruments, almost as if a simple four-word question were being posed again and again. Repeatedly, too, the strings’ celestial interludes gave way to the dynamic of the huge 120-strong orchestra, which gained enough momentum to sound truly threatening, before a three-beat drum march and the castanets that punched out the abrupt conclusion.

In the final movement, the celesta’s delicate tip-toe at the very end sounded like a hopeful sign towards the future. Indeed, history has shown that in the unprecedented variations, musical tensions and radical contrasts – the very components of Shostakovich’s work that Stalin had alluded to as “vulgar and unpalatable” – would lay the very foundation of what made this concert one of the Lucerne season’s most exciting performances.