The holdings of the Archive and Research Center for the Music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Paul Sacher Foundation based in Basel, a perfect place for scholarly investigation and study, keeps a collection of Alfred Schnittke’s letters. In his letter of 27 February 1968 to Valentin Silvestrov, Schnittke refers ironically to festival practices. He urges Silvestrov to allow his Trio for piano, trumpet and celesta to be played in [East] Germany, assuring him of the quality of the piece’s performance by writing: ‘I hope that the members of the Komische oper orchestra will play it decently, especially as it is not a festival potboiler “ (Sammlung Valentin Silvestrov: Korrespondenz).
Schnittke’s opinion is not groundless either. Many festivals legitimate the practices of holiday-intended melodising, of orchestras specially assembled for the occasion and of popular repertoire pieces, and when it comes to the festivals in East Europe of three decades or so ago, we can add opposition to new music for the sake of the idea of massive involvement, apprehensibility, popularity, encouraging amateur arts and political genres.
The Lucerne Festival exists in a virtual discussion with Schnittke’s opinion of festival potboilers. Running year-round programmes on various stages, the festival identifies itself with several major tasks, powerfully encouraging creative ideas: selecting excellent professionals; inviting young musicians; offering masterclasses in conducting and composition; actively and purposefully presenting new music; holding themed discussions with selected participants.
This is how Michael Haefliger, the Festival’s Executive and Artistic Director, motivated the content of the programme of this year’s edition of Lucerne Festival at Easter (1–9 April 2017): ‘The period leading up to Easter is a time of silence. But that does not mean music needs to keep silent these 40 days of Lent – and certainly not in Lucerne. Our 2017 Easter Festival finds a way to engage in spiritual contemplation through numerous concerts that will be performed in the Hofkirche, the Franziskanerkirchem and the Jesuitenkirche – and of course in the KKL Concert Hall as well. Naturally an Easter classic such as Bach’s St. John Passion is on the program: this year it will be performed by Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar Neumann Choir and Ensemble. Wolfgang Rihm’s Requiem-Strophen represents a brand-new work of sacred music, while Monteverdi’s Vespers, which will be staged, rings in this milestone year marking the 450th anniversary of the composer’s birth. We also commemorate the Swiss “patron saint” Niklaus von Flüe, also known as “Brother Klaus” – born 600 years ago – with the dramatic legend composed about him by Arthur Honegger. Motets by Bachq Messiean, and Poulenc will inspire meditative immersion, and a vocal high point is sure to be the opening concert with the phenomenal Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, who will sing music by Porpora, Hendel, and Vivaldi.
Teodor Currentzis, who made his spectacular Festival debut in 2015, returns with his ensemble musicAeterna to lead two concerts as artist-in-residence. He will pair Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross and will also demonstrate the explosively revolutionary power of the classical masters Mozart and Beethoven. Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio ensembles have been regular guests at the Easter Festival since 2004, and they have designed a brilliant finale with two programs, one contemporary and one of modern classics.
Diversity is the key to our program.’
Julia Lezhneva was yet another newcomer to the festival, who was offered the chance to make her festival debut together with Moscow ensemble La Voce Strumentale under the baton of Dmitry Sinkovsky. My impressions of her, though not get from this particular concert, are of a very intelligent and talented singer. She is already deemed to be a star on western stages for her technicality, brilliance, tonal precision, the specific delicacy and razor-sharp clarity of her voice. Aged just 27 or 28, she reminds of the 1980s Kiri Te Kanawa and the 1990s Cecilia Bartoli, who used to sing together with Georg Solti at the time; she is being compared to the 1950s Irmgard Seefried. The bill features her as ‘a soprano you really need to hear!. – She can spin infinitely long threads of melody without gasping for breath, and her vocal acrobatics constantly astonish, with phrasing that is as moving as it is intelligent’. Lezhneva has first of all received thorough professional training and has gained extensive experience at Gretchaninov Music School, Moscow; piano and vocal studies at Moscow Conservatory Academic Music College; Accademia Rossiniana, Pesaro and has attended masterclasses at Cardiff International Academy of Voice (CIAV). She has sung across Europe: from Royal Albert Hall and Barbican Hall to Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London to Paris Salle Pleyel and Salle Gaveau, Théâtre du Châtelet to Royal Opera House, Versailles to Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Konzerthaus, to Vienna and Salzburg, to Lincoln Center, New York to the Great Hall of Moscow State Conservatory to St-Petersburg Philharmonic Hall among other prestigious concert venues. As of 2011, Lezhneva is an exclusive DECCA solo artist.
Teodor Currentzis gave two concerts at the festival (5, 7 April), making his debut at the Lucerne Festival at Easter 2015 with the same orchestra of Russian musicians and works by J. Ph. Rameau that had gained him critical acclaim earlier in Russia. At this year’s Lucerne edition he was already an artist-in-residence. Since the late 1990s, Currentzis has made a name for himself in Russia, substantiated by a number of interviews and mass media advertising. My first impression live of him was not in Russia, but in 2017, in Lucerne from Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by J. Haydn and Stabat Mater by G. B. Pergolesi. Performed a week to the day of Good Friday for which the work was commissioned by the festival, this version of Haydn’s Words… of 1787 was in fact Passion for orchestra. Nine years later Haydn developed the work in an oratorio scored for soloists, choir and orchestra. According to the composer’s biographers, the music was meant to accompany the priest’s sorrow and prayers on Good Friday, leaving word outside music by not incorporating lyrics so that the crucified Saviour’s words to talk directly to the souls of the worshippers. Currentzis attempted at being authentic by recreating the ambience of the earliest church performance. Haydn composed remarkable in its idea ‘music of the state of mind’ as a cycle of seven sonatas with an introduction and an epilogue, which was intended to evoke empathy for Christ’s death through orchestral devices alone. The words of the Gospel: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ [Luke 23:33-34] underlie Sonata No. 1 to go on with a dialogue between the malefactors who were hanged railed on Him [Luke 23:39-43] in Sonata No. 2 to proceed in Sonata No. 3 with John’s verses [19:25-27], while Sonata No. 6, the last one is based on the words of Jesus ‘It is over’. The Epilogue is built on Luke 23:46: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ and the ensuing events, when the veil of the temple was rent; and the earth did quake, and it was acknowledged that truly this was the Son of God, according to Matthew. In an attempt to translate the content, the conductor relied on external effects such as a fully darkened hall, a barely lit stage, lit candles on the podium, musicians donned as monks, hushed dynamics, etc. Still, both here and in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with soloists Nuria Rial (soprano) and Paula Murrihy (mezzo-soprano), what questioned the authenticity were the short musical phrase structures, lack of a continuum of form and a mastered sound process, excessive gesturing, lack of concentration and embedded conviction along with too much theatricality and pretence.
What I made of Currentzis’ presence was a festival’s gesture to give a chance both to performers and audiences. The synopses of the concerts under his baton need greater elaboration on the identification of geographical and musical provincialism in Russia: presently, Currentzis is conductor and the Artistic Director of the State Opera and Ballet Theatre of Perm ‘located over 1,000 km northeast of Moscow’, a ‘remote spot that a musical revolution has occurred’ as the programme puts it. Russia is well known for providing excellent professional education from secondary school to university and this is the reason why the quality of Russian provincial orchestras has been high enough for a young conductor such as Currentzis ever since the 1990s, when he began studying conducting at the State Conservatory of St. Petersburg, under the tutelage of Professor Ilya Musin. Currentzis counts on activity in his repertoires and performances; he counts on the reputation and the class of the State Conservatory of St. Petersburg; on the traditions of Russian performing arts building his conductorial repertoires with Russian orchestras too.