The ease and compact elegance of Bernard Haitink’s conducting style is always a delight to watch. There is precious little drama. Instead, his arms stay habitually within the span between his chin and waist, and he gives directions subtly. An upward twiddle of his thumb, a quick flash of an index finger, a tiny nod, all speak legions. Indeed, in an extraordinarily polished programme at the Lucerne Festival, there wasn’t a single instance where the Chamber Orchestra of Europe wasn’t tightly aligned under his baton in a pursuit of perfection.

Anna Lucia Richter, Bernard Haitink and the COE
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

The maestro’s choice of programme was no less inviting. A small configuration played Mozart’s Symphony no. 36 in C major, K425. The Adagio, which nicely alternated punchy elements with lyrical segments, was gentrified and intimate, and some of its easy rhythmic patterns carried over to the Andante, delicate and full of air. The Menuetto-Trio picked up a folk-like theme and was full of the tonal contrasts and surprising phrasing that made Mozart such a master of his craft. Alone in the final Presto, the alternation of the robust with the demure, the boisterous with the gentle, made a case for the dark giving way to the light.  

That the young Mozart penned and completed the so-called “Linz Symphony” over only four days in late autumn, 1783, was an unparalleled achievement. That it came on the heels of the death of the Mozarts’ first child, however, makes the work even more remarkable. The amicable interchange among the musicians underscored that sensation, too.

After the interval, two superb singers — soprano Anna Lucia Richter, and baritone Christian Gerhaher — alternated a selection of orchestrated songs from Gustav Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The anthology draws on German folk poems published in 1806, and includes drinking songs, soldiers’ songs, tales of romance, illusion and loss that can be performed in any chosen combination. Mahler was attracted to the short, first-person narratives because they were told in the simplest terms and often included dialogues between different characters. As such, astute acting abilities are in demand here, skills in which both singers excelled unconditionally.

Christian Gerhaher and Bernard Haitink with the COE
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

While in The Sentinel’s Night Song, Gerhaher was somewhat overpowered by the orchestra, his silvery treatment of notes in All depends on God’s blessing for him who believes set the tone of the didactic parables following. In Rhine Legend and Wasted Effort, Richter played the enticing “Would you like a little morsel?” as a bid to the “lad” she was after, and in the subsequent “Who made up This Little Song?” showed herself the mistress of all “pretty maids” whose “rosy lips can make hearts well”. Again in the challenging voices of In Praise of High Intelligence – a spoof whose donkey is the intellect – she showed a command of theatrics behind her highly adaptable voice.

Anna Lucia Richter, Bernard Haitink and Christian Gerhaher
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

In his poignant Reveille, Gerhaher successively built tension around bloodshed on the battlefield, a soldier failing to save his comrade, and the reception of the soldier’s ravaged body at the “sweetheart’s house”. His performance of The Drummer Boy —  one condemned to the gallows, and musically underscored by the oboe, bassoon, and celli — was equally haunting, the final drum roll and “Good night” a call that left the audience in silent stillness. In the penultimate Life on Earth, Richter’s was an expression of hopeless famine and the false promises given a desperately hungry child who, in the end, would, “lay dead upon his coffin”. That sobering narrative came just before Gerhaher’s “Primeval Light,” whose conviction around faith bringing “blissful everlasting life!” was as humbling as it was magnificently performed.