As Dramaturg Susanne Stähr suggested in a short introduction prior to the performance, the evening included three works that masqueraded as something they were not. Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was never used to open a theatre production; Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor is a song without words; Rachmaninov’s The Bells is more a metaphor for the passing ages of man than a orchestration of bells themselves. Neverthless, even if “disguises” was an underlying theme, the merits of this programme were many. 

Mariss Jansons © Marco Borggreve
Mariss Jansons
© Marco Borggreve

Mariss Jansons has brought his pointed conducting style to the Lucerne Festival stage many times, and again here, his direction was consistently demonstrative. In launching the short Beethoven work, the conductor momentarily struck a martial arts pose on the podium – feet in wide stride, elbows cocked – just before the first chord. It was just the right spur to the music Gustav Mahler “retouched” for greater dramatic effect, an update of a kind quite commonly done in his era to underscore great acts of heroism.

The Coriolanus story revolves around the legendary warrior who brought his former enemies to the gates of Rome in preparation for an attack. His own mother pleads against that brutality; and the music oscillates between underscoring his conviction and her tender persuasion. When her sweeter side wins over; he commits suicide rather than be disgraced for his change of mind. Thus the work − scored for a huge orchestra − ends on a tragic chord: the strings even mimicking the fading heartbeat of a dying hero.

By contrast, and bringing a little bit of Broadway with him, Lithuanian-born violinist Julian Rachlin sported shiny patent shoes and a red pocket handkerchief for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto that followed. Finished in 1844, after the composer’s six-year collaboration with star violinist Ferdinand David, the concerto included several novelties. Among them, there is no orchestral introduction at the beginning of the first movement; instead, the violin strikes out from the very first measures on its demanding trajectory.

Rachlin’s tone was sublime; he showed complete mastery of the delicate, quieter passages, but lit up like a firecracker when the score demanded muscle. I wrote “Lichtstrahl” (light ray) in my notes for the clarity and brightness of his rendition. He shifted modes easily; on many downbeats, stomped his feet or stood like a soldier coming to attention at roll call. His facial expressions underscored sentiments, too, whether pout, smile, raised eyebrows, popping up on his toes to mark a dramatic turn. In one particularly lengthy solo, he came almost under a spell; the violin seemed to be playing him.

A fine bassoon heralded the concerto’s darker and more somber middle section, but Mendelssohn’s last movement was rambunctious, and Rachlin’s playing was marked by brilliant color. What’s more, there was a fair degree of humor in the merry melody’s jumps and starts, and the orchestra seemed to be having a fine time despite the regularly of the score’s repeated phrases.

As an encore, Rachlin played the close-to-warp-speed strains of Eugène Ysaÿe. The sheer aptitude of technique, the deconstructed substance, and atomic blast of the piece all shook me, but in all those virtuoso mechanics, I lost the thread of pure poetry.

After the interval, Rachmaninov’s The Bells returned it, however. No fewer than 75 singers and three soloists joined in the 1913 choral symphony, whose text was adapted from the Balmont translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous poem. Tschaikovsky is cited as a key inspiration; indeed, Rachmaninov worked at the older Russian’s desk in Rome to complete the piece, where four different types of bells mirror the course of human life.

In the first “Silver Bells” segment, the huge texture of chorus and instruments threatened to outweigh Maxim Aksenov’s light tenor, for Mariss Jansons pulled maximum volume from the huge configuration. In the “Wedding Bells” segment, Tatiana Pavlovskaya fared better for being heard, but kept a straight face and eyes frozen straight ahead during her exposition. Those showed little “tender passion” and fewer “tones of joyous singing” than the lyric suggests, and her voice had precious little modulation. The “Alarm Bells” third poem is scored as a “ruthless configuration” of havoc, terror and anguish that would render any soloist inaudible, and, well enough, it remains the work of the chorus alone. Their excellence and integrity as a choir goes uncontended, and my only criticism is that their standing and sitting timing showed a certain raggedness. In the “Mournful Iron Bells” conclusion, baritone Alexey Markov sang as forcibly and convincingly as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea. His drama and scored dissonances were simply thrilling, and the woodwinds’ haunting knell behind him − “moaning forth the wood of doom” − supplemented the grim macabre of impending death. 

****1