Established in 1987 by Leonard Bernstein, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra last year joined the exclusive club of youth orchestras to have performed at the Salzburg Festival and was immediately invited back for a return appearance this season. Performing under their principal conductor Christoph Eschenbach, the current crop of young musicians lost no time showing us why, with ebullient playing supported by athletic discipline.

Radu Lupu © Pekka Saarinen
Radu Lupu
© Pekka Saarinen

Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel was a bracing romp true to Debussy’s remark about ‘frenzied movement which sweeps us on from beginning to end, making us live through all the hero’s adventures’. Watching a sprightly Eschenbach darting around the podium, his arms and legs seemingly auditioning for a solo with the Rockettes, Debussy’s rather more acerbic likening of Till Eulenspiegel to an hour spent in an asylum might just as well have come to mind, were it not for the vibrant and well-integrated expressive palette the outlandish gestures brought about. If the horn entries which herald the antics of the titular prankster were a little preoccupied with simply playing those famous notes accurately, then the clarinets, assigned the second of Till’s themes, were alert and struck the required playful note, while the strings dashed from exploit to exploit in invigorating fashion with a revealing touch of insistence. A degree of micro-management on Eschenbach’s part could be excused for being in the spirit of the pranks depicted, though the breathless pace unintentionally laced the work with more irony than perhaps even Strauss can be made to bear – Till’s love music was dispatched in a perfunctory, borderline bureaucratic manner, while the men of the cloth depicted by the violas, supposedly a mirthless foil for Till’s antics, were quite the most frolicsome clergymen I’ve heard in any performance of this piece.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, performed after the interval, received a calmer reading. The first movement is written in Bartók’s night music vein and so typically the sounds and atmosphere of the natural world are evoked, though here, by contrast, there was a more human quality to the stillness, less ethereal than introspective in character. Perky phrasing from the solo bassoon began the second movement and things might have remained on the lighter, jesting side Bartók describes in his own programme note; pesante interjections from the cellos were needlessly savage in attack, and muted trumpets were phlegmatically understated in a counterintuitive ploy which didn’t work out in balance and a few other terms. As the third movement in a five-movement palindromic work the tendency can be for the strings to attack the ‘Elegia’ with some fierceness, though here massed sound reached a powerful emotional climax without stridency, and in the woodwind echoes of Debussy were more pronounced than usual alongside eerie-sounding foreshadowings of Britten. The fourth movement is noted mainly for Bartók’s mercilessly poking fun at Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, presented here in good humour, with the folk strains in the strings carrying through more brightly. A degree of rawness to the orchestral sound, present throughout this concert, became more noticeable in the frenetically negotiated final movement, though the fugato sections and rousing finish showed impressive polish.

Eschewing industry games has led considerable descriptive misfortune to befall Radu Lupu: he is reclusive, we are told, though it is a strange hermit who gives in excess of eighty concerts a year, while his ruminative pianism is invariably pigeonholed as a matter for cultish appreciation. I prefer to think of him as a pianist of immense stature whose readings are no more unconventional than pianistic orthodoxy is dull by comparison, even though, in the case of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3, such a view might beggar belief. And yet in this performance the muscularity and assertiveness required by Beethoven’s writing was there in spirit, carried by Lupu’s natural authority and strategy of dispatching dramatic statements such as the C minor runs on which the piano enters with light but sharply pointed articulation (for he is not as incapable of rhetoric as popular belief would have it). His masterstroke was to trace the work’s Mozartian lineage with that very same articulation and thus bridge the divide between the dramatic form of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos (even more indebted to Mozart) and the stirrings of a mature classical archetype eventually seen in the Eroica.

Aside from the lucidity brought to matters of style, the wonders of the Lupu touch were once more a thing to behold: the decay-defying length and depth of his chords, prominent in the second movement, and gorgeous legato maintained across the most improbable of leaps; the seamless switch from his customary poetic silkiness to a glistening clarity when pointing a phrase a particularly way or drawing attention to Beethoven’s descending bass lines; and the ghostly quality of his pianissimo – truly the quietest in the business – which remains capable of sparkling through thick orchestral textures and reaching the back of any hall. The orchestra was an efficient if not always sensitive partner and I should perhaps note that Lupu was in fact on faltering technical form throughout this performance, if only to remark that with the things worth cherishing about this performance it scarcely seemed to matter.