This year’s Lucerne summer festival theme is “Humour”, a poetic category that marks one end of Mahler’s great song spectrum. By definition, humour breaks down barriers and offers the unexpected. Fitting, because Mathias Goerne is an imposing figure; when he came onstage, his handshake with the sprightly concertmaster Sebastian Breuninger was something like a meeting between unlikely opposites.

Matthias Goerne and Andris Nelsons © Lucerne Festival | Priska Ketterer
Matthias Goerne and Andris Nelsons
© Lucerne Festival | Priska Ketterer
Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of hundreds of German folk poems that Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano published in 1806 and which includes drinking songs, soldiers’ songs, romance and illusion. The songs typically contain a breach − a sudden change of level from the sublime to the lowly, the extraordinary to the insignificant, from what is real to the world of dreams. Their short, first-person narratives attracted Mahler tremendously; his music simply had to underscore an already existing body of authentic − if sometimes quirky – figures, possibly liberating him from having to turn inwards to find his musical expression. In any case, the songs’ didactic parables are told in the simplest terms and many include dialogues between different characters. The nine songs for voice and piano that Mahler composed between 1887 and 1890 were supplemented in the decade following with a second, larger body of songs that the composer orchestrated, making an anthology of songs that can be performed in any chosen combination.

In Lucerne, Goerne’s Little Rhine Legend began with a jolly, almost bee-bop agility that quickly gave way to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction: “What use is a sweetheart if she won’t stay?” It was a mood salvaged only by powers of the lover’s vivid imagination. Das irdische Leben, by contrast, ended in the tragedy of a child’s starvation, weaving the fabric of social consciousness that these songs often portray. Goerne’s convincing portrayal of the mother’s excuses, and the child’s petulant – rather than sickly-sounding – requests, boosted the sense of young life’s irreparable loss.

In the “soldier song”, Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow, Goerne took his line literally (“Why should I stand here any longer?”) and actually rocked from side to ride with an imaginary object cradled in his arms. Listening, I jotted down “infinite sweetness” when − in the voice of the soldier’s sweetheart – the singer welcomed “…my beloved boy”. The baritone’s varying textures and volumes, perfect diction, ability to switch voice gender, strong facial expressions and complete lack of presumption, gave the text true pathos. Goerne's soldier belies the “sign up at any cost” mentality that can be unsettling to this day.

Singing Primal Light the singer went down into his knees as if even to gather spiritual strength from the earth itself. But far the most inviting of the songs was the humoresque St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes, a fairly overt allusion to − and critique of − various religious convictions. The carp, the sharp-mouthed pike, “good eels and sturgeons” all – would rise to hear the “pious one” but ultimately retain all their bad habits, just as they were before the sermon.

The fine Lucerne Festival Orchestra (LFO) under conductor Andris Nelsons complemented every shade and nuance of Goerne’s voice handsomely. While the musicians’ configuration changes some every year, there are still players who go back to the Abbado days, and superb soloists animate each of the sections. As for the setting, Lucerne’s hallmark Jean Nouvel building is a hallmark of the city; it is a construct of steel, glass, wood and concrete: materials of extraordinary strength and transparency. And it is precisely those attributes that Matthias Goerne showed as a performer. For as strong a singer as he is, his lyrical voice beautifully imparts the highly emotive and fragile.

After the interval, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was launched to great expectations by the long-standing LFO solo trumpet, Reinhold Friedrich. The orchestra played the first two movements more slowly than usual, every single note of the Funeral March given even exaggerated attention, making for less florid density that we usually hear in that slow movement. At the same time, there was comic relief: several large film cameras on moveable mounts raised their giant heads over the players as if Nessie were coming up from the deep.

The Symphony’s third movement vibrated with the positive energy of a lively dance. Here in the Scherzo, the grandiose work began to unfold, releasing the ebullience and push-pull effect I love most about Mahler’s symphonic sound. The Adagietto, affectionately played, lead directly into the final movement, whose thick, rich and colourful carpet of counterpoint pulled in the whole audience. Then, in the final Rondo, Nelsons relied on the players’ talents for an explosive finish, much like a seasoned cowboy expects in the tremendous power of a rodeo horse.