Prior to a huge Bruckner orchestral work, the last concert of this year’s Easter festival at Lucerne’s stunning Culture and Congress Centre hall featured the gifted Austrian pianist Till Fellner as soloist in one of the most ambitious of Mozart’s Viennese piano concertos, the C major, K503. Bernard Haitink, whose association with the festival spans decades, conducted. 

Bernard Haitink
© Todd Rosenberg

Fellner’s posture at the piano was poised and strictly upright, his brow often raised, his facial expression even close to pouty. But from the start, he played the Mozart concerto with a seeming affection that was close to sweet cream. Already in the expansive first movement, Allegro maestoso, where some measures recall La Marseillaise, Fellner personalised the work’s striking heroism in the work’s unexpected harmonies in shifts from the major to minor key.

In the slower-paced Andante, the piano part was complemented by the orchestra’s fine flute and oboe, and its heartfelt melodies epitomised tenderness, but never approached the saccharine. The piano score’s numerous repeats in the final movement, Allegretto, were invariably given different accents, and Fellner’s runs up and down the piano keys were like those of a loom weaving a delicate textile. All theatricals aside, Fellner’s was a modest, exacting and highly appealing performance.

Anton’s Bruckners’ bombastic Sixth Symphony came after the interval. The composer himself once called this “the sauciest” of his monumental works, the one with the most rhythmic invention and subtlety. That said, contemporary critics were quick to call the Sixth an “ugly duckling” when Gustav Mahler conducted its 1899 premiere in Vienna. Granted, the Sixth highlights the Bruckner canon’s unique orchestral dynamism, and its many prominent – and often repeated – rhythmic schemes are not to everyone’s liking. But if ever the Sixth were to be played with the precision and feisty character that Bruckner intended, the configuration on this concert stage made for an optimal performance.

Indeed, the work’s fulminant start alone was like a huge gala dinner. There were struggles between the brash and the lyrical, the one, then the other instrument group splashing the wine. The eight cellos had a particularly sonorous voice, but even where high volume was scored, Haitink rarely raised the baton above his head. Using his own intriguing personal vocabulary of gestures, he did however shake his fist to incite more power, and shivered his fingers to bring on more tension.

The work’s second movement Adagio began with the sounds of the woodwinds’ melancholy contemplation, and led to a series of three thematic groups, the third being a weighty funeral dirge. Bruckner’s inclination to layer his players’ parts made another rich fabric, while the third movement, Scherzo, gave prime time to the timpani, demanded extended pizzicato of the strings and paid particular tribute to the excellent horns. Tom Service has cited the movement’s “grotesque contrasts of texture: the unsettling trudge in the cellos and the basses that you feel wants to resolve but which never properly does". That said, the work turns back to the first movement’s melody, and in the Finale pulses in ways that are indisputably, if not overbearingly, Bruckner, clearly foreshadowing the more popular Eighth symphony.

Now in this 90th year, Bernard Haitink had been slow to come to the podium, and had carefully to steer clear of a couple of stage impediments as he did. While a high seat was planted behind him, he had used it sparingly. Yet by the time Bruckner's Sixth came to an end and he opened the thumb and index finger of his left hand to – ping! – trigger its final note, one could see that the monumental work had put great demands on his energies. True to form nonetheless, he gallantly credited the various instrument groups, and humbly accepted the thunderous applause. He responded as if that were almost undeserved, although his long history in Lucerne is a vital and celebrated one. It was no surprise that from the stage, the BRSO musicians, too, enthusiastically acknowledged that major achievement.