Two years ago, Riccardo Chailly took over the helm of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra after the death of his esteemed mentor and friend, Claudio Abbado, who had founded the configuration in 2003. Given the LFO’s world-class players and commitment to growing together, Chailly and the musicians decided to focus on works that had not been in the orchestra’s programming hitherto, and they are “following that star” in the current season, which runs through to mid-September under the theme of “Identity”. If − as programme editor Thomas May cites − Richard Strauss “stretched the ambitions of programme music far beyond the usual, narratively straightforward points of reference”, then that theme is a timely choice in the context of today’s identity checks, migrations and multi-culturalism.

Riccardo Chailly © Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival
Riccardo Chailly
© Peter Fischli | Lucerne Festival

First on the programme was Also sprach Zarathustra, a work loosely based on Friederich Nietzsche’s eponymous prose poem, which preaches extreme self-reliance for every human being. In one of classical music’s most familiar beginnings − in no small part because it opens 2001: A Space Odyssey − the C-G-C major interval that slips back into a minor chord resounded and energized the fully-packed KKL Hall, even if the timpani were a little too bombastic. Throughout, in fact, where Abbado might have insisted on volume restraint, Chailly aspired to the full Monty.

Maestro Chailly often stands like a solid “A”-frame, his feet planted firmly apart, his upper body moving furiously with his demonstrative direction. Pointed at the strings, a gesture might urge a section on, or a hand placed over his heart indicate phrasing that’s particularly romantic, since moments in Zarathustra are not exempt from that. But so, too, did he pull out the ornery from the ten-part work with robust and infectious vigour. The doubles basses, then flutes, then bassoon, animated and expanded the score among unexpected, even dissonant, clusters of notes whose elemental power was riveting. After such a muscular effort, Chailly was visibly exhausted, and the audience broke in with applause too quickly for the ending to resonate, but this Strauss was a truly dynamic experience.

Lucerne Festival Orchestra © Maneul Ajans | Lucerne Festival
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
© Maneul Ajans | Lucerne Festival

Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) is the story of a dying man’s reflections on his past, and a piece that gains terrific poignancy by select virtuoso performances, particularly by the flute, bassoon and oboe. In Lucerne, the horns and strings added a degree of turbulence, while two fine harps underscored the rich tapestry of what stands for a human life. Scored for some 100 players, the work built to an explosive and inspired resolution. 

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche takes its name from the popular German folk figure, and was marked at the great KKL Hall by terrific playfulness and colour. The antics of the rogue/con-artist Till are mirrored in a generous use of strong percussion, and dissonance shows the “grating” of the character in the larger framework of society. Under Chailly’s baton, the flutes and horns alternated a childlike gaiety and boisterous blasts, and the woodwind instruments brought a degree of humour to their scripted scampering and clatter. Once the snare drum signalled Till’s march to the gallows and he dropped to his death on a call of the clarinet, the orchestration moved into a pastoral theme, almost as if to give us flowers over a grave. That marked the last of the three “identities” the Lucerne Festival Orchestra grounded and summarily put to bed on thunderous applause.