“Psyche”, the theme of the Lucerne Festival im Sommer concerts this year, allows for multiple interpretations that all bear witness to the power of music, with its profound, healing, enlightening or even manipulative effects on the human soul. For the opening concerts last weekend, the Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons was asked to take on the selection of Brahms that Claudio Abbado had scheduled and had to leave behind. Given the strong identity the orchestra attained in the ten years of Abbado’s intensive collaboration, it is hardly surprising that many have since questioned the future of the great conductor’s legacy, and are watching − and weighing − both Nelsons’s ability to motivate the players and his commitment to the musical community that Abbado so steadfastly fostered.

Nelsons already has a solid history with Lucerne. In 2012, the Festival elected him its “artiste étoile,” giving him the advantage of familiarity with the venue and players. But his style of conducting couldn’t differ more from that of Abbado, whose “magic hands” could impart what he wanted with the most measured of movements. By contrast, Nelsons uses his whole body like a baton, its language so clearly paralleling the sounds of select instruments, that even if you were completely deaf, you might still be able to locate where in the score you should be. He twists, re-centres, stands up to attention as stiffly as any Navy Admiral, bends backwards, straddles the podium, pens arcs in mid-air with his baton. And indeed, he does make beautiful music.

Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Andris Nelsons © Peter Fischli, Lucerne Festival
Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Andris Nelsons
© Peter Fischli, Lucerne Festival
The concert began with Brahms’ merry-making Serenade in D major Op.16. Written in the late 1850s during the time Brahms was serving as court music teacher and choir conductor in Westphalia, the serenade is thought to represent a key stepping-stone on the composer’s path towards larger scale symphonic works. In a particularly tender melodic exchange between the flutes and oboes, Nelsons used gestures that recalled picking brambles out of fleece, or kneading bread. The Scherzo stood as an accomplished weave of instrumental threads, the sound alternating between the delicate and exuberant.

In the third movement, with a darker palette in the cellos, the sound grew into almost a galactic dictum, a powerful sound that seemed again to say, “rise up and ye shall be counted!”. While the sweetness of the oboe was reaffirmed in the Minuet, the final movement ended on an ebullient note, the piccolo charging in near the end with her silvery pistol rapport.

Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Sara Mingardo © Peter Fischli, Lucerne Festival
Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Sara Mingardo
© Peter Fischli, Lucerne Festival
For Brahms' Alto Rhapsody, Op.53, the renowned contralto Sara Mingardo sang with a considerably larger configuration of some 65 musicians and some 20 male members of the Bayerischer Rundfunk choir. Written in 1869 as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schumann's daughter Julie, some music historians believe that she was the object of Brahms' undying, though never openly expressed, affection. In any case, the Rhapsody’s portrayal of a misanthropic soul asking to find spiritual sustenance and release from the shackles of unrequited love (“balsam turned to poison”), has strong parallels in Brahms' own life and character. With texts drawn from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem Harzreise im Winter, Sara Mingardo was challenged by the work's lower registers, which were sometimes somewhat inaudible. Albeit a highly compelling performer by any standard, she might have capitalized more on the onomatopoeic in the persuasive German words – such as the acidic sounding Menschenhass (misanthropy). The choir joined her convincingly in a call to a higher spirit for the abatement of the traveller’s suffering, and overall the Rhapsody’s honest sentiment and its universal plea for a hopeful future and well being always gives the work a timeless quality.

Last on the concert program was an utterly stellar rendition of Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, Op.73. When the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter first performed it on 30 December 1877, one important critic wrote: “the novelty was a great, unqualified success.” We might well give the same accolade here for Andris Nelsons’ achievement. This opening concert showed what Bernard Haitink has cited as the combination of charisma and musicality that Andris Nelsons embodies, and that marks his tremendous potential; thunderous applause at the end showed that the audience shares that perception. Yes, Nelsons’ highly physical, even literal, direction is new for the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Yet equally undeniable is that it brought forth a fitting tribute, both to the Romantic psyche, and in a sad twist of fate, to the late Claudio Abbado who had meant to begin the 2014 Lucerne Festival season himself conducting these very works with his “orchestra of friends”.