. Lucerne Festival / Switzerland / Berlin Philharmonic / Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

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Lucerne International Festival of Music 1999

by Philip Anson / August 31, 1999
On the Aisle

Lucerne. Switzerland – An almost tropical sun shines on Lucerne, Switzerland, now in the middle of its 61st annual International Music Festival. The quaint city, with its 200-year old wooden bridges spanning the swiftly flowing River Reuss, might be called the poor man’s Zurich, if the cost of living wasn’t so high.

But with all of Europe’s top orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, stopping in, Lucerne’s music festival takes back seat to none in Switzerland. The 4 week, 71 event Festival has a $ 15 million (Can.) budget and, last year, sold some 80,000 tickets. Modern music is not neglected : there are two cutting edge composers in residence, the Azerbaidjani Frangis Ali-sade and the Georgian Giya Kancheli. Even patriotism has a place: the festival will present a new composition for the alphorn, performed by the Swiss Contemporary Alphorn Players.

The Lucerne Festival revolves around Parisian architect Jean Nouvel’s high tech, blue glass and metal, lakeside Art and Congress Center, called the second best classical music venue in the world (after Vienna’s Musikverein) when it was inaugurated one year ago. The main concert hall, where visiting orchestras perform, is a space age, 1840 fixed seat facility designed by sound engineering wizards Artec Consultants of new York. It features a suspended acoustical canopy, perforated wall tiles and a 7000 cubic meter reverberation chamber around the periphery.

My only chance to evaluate the new hall was during a concert of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) under Claudio Abbado. For this concert the acoustic side panels were all opened, like a great bird drying its wings. One immediately noticed that the softest notes of each instrument were as clear and audible as the whole orchestra playing together. It was hard to accept the fact that one whispering oboe could have exactly the same dynamic impact as a 60 piece ensemble, but such was the case. Aside from this almost unnatural high fidelity, the hall was not particularly grateful, neither warming or smoothing the music.

I found that listening became a cold and intellectual experience, as if the music was piped directly to the brain’s rational neurons, bypassing the pleasure centre. I have no doubt that this hall delivers the most faithful possible reproduction of the music, but it is doubtful whether acoustical honesty is really the best policy. Under these conditions, the BPO’s loud and fast performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was a bore.

By contrast, a Festival concert of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater by German countertenor Andreas Scholl (and his soprano sister Elisabeth) in Lucerne’s gaudily decorated 17th century Jesuit Church, was sabotaged by the venue’s blurry acoustics. It was impossible to tell how well the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra played, but Scholl’s clean, strong alto voice carried well, confirming that he is obviously the most reliable, if not the most colorful, countertenor on the market. Advance copies of Scholl’s new Decca recording of the Pergolesi were selling like hotcakes at the Swiss equivalent of price of $48 (Canadian) a pop, almost three times the Toronto retail price. Canadians record buyers can count their blessings.

The Lucerne Festival ends Sept. 11. Tel. 41 41 226 44 00. Fax: 41 41 226 44 60. Website: www.lucernemusic.ch.

Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments? [email protected]).


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