With Riccardo Chailly having fallen ill, the baton for this Lucerne Festival Orchestra programme was passed to the gifted Czech conductor Jakub Hrůšawho hopped from the Salzburg Festival to Lake Lucerne and not only saved the evening, but led a truly enlightened performance. First on the all-Mahler programme was the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, a song cycle that dates from the mid-1880s, but was orchestrated by the composer a decade later. Baritone Andrè Schuen was an elegant soloist, in the face of an orchestral configuration of some 100 players. Schuen’s projection was never compromised, and the vast palette of colour and poignancy he brought to the cycle was stunning.

Andrè Schuen, Jakub Hrůša and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Patrick Hürlimann | Lucerne Festival

Next on the programme was Mahler’s majestic First Symphony. “How it gushed out of me like a mountain stream!” the 28-year old composer wrote to his friend, Friedrich Löhr in March, 1888, about the work’s evolution, which started when, four and five years earlier, he’d tried writing strictly instrumental music for the first time. Since the symphony had been poorly received at its 1889 premiere in Budapest, however, Mahler adjusted its score radically in the years thereafter, most notably, by eliminating a movement he’d entitled Blumine.

Nonetheless, typically “Mahlerian” in the work we hear today are the melodies, often derived from familiar folksongs, or instances marked by an ironic juxtaposition, wherein one genre might be exploited, but moves quickly into another, creating rich, one-over-another musical motifs, and abrupt transitions into new themes.

Jakub Hrůša
© Patrick Hürlimann | Lucerne Festival

The LFO, made up of the soloists and principals from leading European orchestras, seemed to rejoice in Mahler’s unusually liberal approach to form. The accomplished violinist Julia Dausacker served as a fine concertmaster; Reinhold Friedrich on trumpet, and two members of the superb Hagen Quartet, for example, were also among some 100 musicians performing. In the first movement, the cellos, entrusted with a simplistic, almost childlike-melody, were supplemented by the flutes with a tender intervention. The second movement, which included a slow Ländler – an Austrian dance of rural origin – made for the most conventional, perhaps easily-memorable part of the symphony. Wherever the rhythms were high-spirited and infectious, the whole orchestra showed tremendous elasticity, and the principal players readily underscored the energy that Mahler intended.

In the third movement, the woodwinds, cello and a singularly haunting oboe had their chance to shine, while the theme morphed into a gypsy-folklore-like score. Including elements of the grotesque as it does, the movement is sometimes called a “parody of the genre”; over and beyond its klezmer-like music, it repeatedly quotes the familiar children’s tune, Frères Jacques, but takes it into the minor key, rather than its usual major. Mahler turns it into a kind of funeral march, creepy and full of remorse, wherein oboe, flute, clarinets and bassoon – which excelled here in Lucerne – carry the weighty mood before the strings’ exuberant fanfare in the final movement.

Jakub Hrůša and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Patrick Hürlimann | Lucerne Festival

Then in that final movement, there was all glory on the great Culture and Congress Centre stage: the cymbals and timpani had a field day, the athletic Hrůša a cross between a dancer and an explosive, his own jagged movements echoing those in the score. The strings broke into an uplifting sequence that felt like huge sails in a strong wind, before the whole configuration broke through to a moment of complete cacophony. Imagine: two timpanists creating thunder and lightning strikes! It was no surprise that the symphony’s’ ending brought the entire Lucerne audience to its feet in utter jubilation.