Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons began his five-year contract with the venerable Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in the fall of 2017, and the alliance shows itself a fine one. Mozart’s celestial Piano concerto in G major, KV 453 is a work of tremendous imagination. It was composed in 1784 for one of the master’s accomplished students in Vienna, who also premiered the piece that same year. A dazzling mixture of orchestra and pianistic colour, the concerto also has an avian connection: To Mozart’s great delight, his pet starling could purportedly whistle the first five measures of the last movement back to him.

Martin Helmchen performing Mozart with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

Here in Lucerne, German pianist Martin Helmchen made the perfect interpreter. Slight of build, and with posture as elegant as a figure in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, his approach to the piece was full of consummate tenderness. In the Allegro, his gestures were delicate but precise; even while meeting otherworldly demands on his fingering, he exercised it with a clear and sculptural definition. He and the orchestra passed melodies back and forth between them with commendable ease and in sense of youthful play.

In the sonorous Andante, the piano’s plaintive, delicately embellished melodies were picked up by the excellent oboes and flutes, making a fine counter-weave in Mozart’s sonorous fabric. The unexpected shifts of temperament demanded a great deal of the players, but concertmaster, Sebastian Breuninger, gave impetus in almost athletic terms, using all the means at his disposal, including great shakes of his long locks of hair. More graceful, perhaps, was that the pianist’s ending the first and second movements with a fingertip close to his lips, almost as if at prayer. By contrast, Andris Nelsons showed himself a bear of a physical presence, one with a terrific appetite for music. He regularly supported himself on the rail behind him, meaning he often conducted with only his right hard. That said, he was entirely in his element and showed great conviviality with the players.

After the interval, the orchestra played Claude Debussy’s La Mer, which evokes the sea's different moods through rich, varied, even elusive harmonies and instrumental timbres. As such, his music imparts the spirit and activity of the waves rather than their physical form. La Mer conjures up a certain atmosphere with nautical sounds and intriguing dance rhythms, a sea-picture each listener must design with his own imagination.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Leipzig Gewandhaus
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

The work begins with dark and mysterious impulses that gradually reflect a clearing of the light and more movement as the iridescent sea is stirred up by an approaching wind. The second movement “The waves at play” gives us the spirit of waves, and was approached here in Lucerne contemplatively, and quieter than is often played. The final movement “Dialogue of the wind and sea” explores the elemental forces in a powerful declaration, one complete with a huge brass climax, as if the work were brandishing a sword.

Igor Stravinsky’s marvellous Firebird Suite came last. With this, his first large-scale work for orchestra; the 27-year-old composer had only published five other compositions hitherto. But under the great impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, and joining a creative team of young Russian luminaries who played to their public’s fascination for all things foreign and exotic, Stravinsky hit gold. First performed at the Opéra de Paris in June 1910, the work has lost none of its great appeal more than a century later. And here in Lucerne, starting with the low, primitive sound of the rolling double basses, through to the effervescent flutes, the Gewandhausorchester took the 1919 version of the work like a second skin. Nelsons was on top form, poking the strings into their clockwork rhythms and the horns into a brassy bombast, so much so that in the huge conclusion, he used what almost looked like the muscular punch of a professional boxer. That said, this Firebird could hardly have been tackled with more conviction; in short, this performance was electrifying.