The word “power” – theme of this year’s Lucerne Summer Festival – has many connotations, all of which depend on context. But it’s safe to say that people of all nations and ethnicities listen to music in one form or another, and that it has brilliant associative capabilities. The power of music has been scientifically proven to improve memory, attention span, physical coordination and mental development. Moreover, it can “lift the spirits” and by stimulating the regeneration of brain cells, spur motivation and concentration. The festival's opening concert made a real case for those many attributes.

Riccardo Chailly, Denis Matsuev and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra © Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival
Riccardo Chailly, Denis Matsuev and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

Widely accredited with its sheer pianistic brilliance, Sergei Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto was written for his first American tour in 1909, within the period most often cited as the apex of his composing career. Before he left Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution, Rachmaninov never dreamt that he would be touring in the country that would later become his home. Indeed, he apparently accepted the American tour offer only because he hoped that the promised concert fees would allow him to realise his dream of buying a car.

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev simply electrified the Lucerne stage with his performance. It is said that no other work of this genre demands more notes played per second; and indeed, there were times when Matsuev’s hands were no more than a blur on the keys. His range of interpretation, from the dreamlike to the demonstrative, from the reticent through to the triumphant and brassy, showed him exploring all the colours of Rachmaninov’s musical spectrum. He made the score as three-dimensional, as palpable as music can be. It comes as no surprise that when the composer’s grandson recorded Rachmaninov’s masterworks on the very piano his famous grandfather had played, his choice of pianist was Matsuev.

Matsuev was supported by a configuration of players second to none. The Lucerne Festival Orchestra musicians hold chairs in the world’s finest orchestras and many enjoy distinguished solo careers. There was a moment in the first movement, for example, where the tempo gradually slowed, and in fairly quick succession, the flute, oboe and clarinet each had a brief solo, all of them consummately beautiful. Again and again as one resonant body, too, the strings’ emotive work was extraordinary, enough, as the adage goes, to make even a brave man cry.

Riccardo Chailly conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra © Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival
Riccardo Chailly conducts the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

The first movement begins with the "Russian hymn" theme often equated with religious chant, although Rachmaninov himself insisted that there was no such connection. That said, the gentle, regular pulse of the orchestra at the start hardly foretells the dynamism and roller-coaster of complex moods to come. The second-movement Intermezzo opens with an orchestral introduction that gives the pianist the only respite in the entire concerto. The strings sounded almost interplanetary at the start, then the piano introduced playful syncopation, and the dialogue between piano and orchestra was interrupted several times afterwards by short piano solos. The concerto’s Finale almost stunned with its majestic scope. Matsuev at one point jumped up to shoot out his suit-tails behind him; it was almost enough to elicit a cheer from the audience even before the thunderous applause at the conclusion.

Riccardo Chailly continued to show himself almost blood-bonded to this Lucerne configuration. Having succeeded Claudio Abbado as Music Director in 2016, his conducting is muscular and demonstrative, his footwork, solid, and his appreciation of the players’ excellence, clearly visible. His broad grin at the end spoke volumes.

After the concerto, Rachmaninov's Vocalise was a soothing interjection. Originally conceived as a vocal piece without text, the later version solely for orchestra also has a gentle, soporific effect. The melody’s “voice” unfolded over an accompaniment that constantly pulsated and was enriched with contrapuntal motifs.

Rachmaninov’s demanding Symphony no. 3 in A minor came last in the programme. Composed in nearby Hertenstein on Lake Lucerne, the work premiered in Philadelphia in 1936 to mixed acclaim. While one critic accused it of peddling “outdated Romanticism”, Rachmaninov considered the Third one of this finest works. Chailly showed tremendous affinity towards it, the various instrumental solos, particularly the woodwinds, building up a high degree of suspense. The season in Lucerne, under the motto “Power”, certainly began with a burst of musical fireworks.

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