JWR Articles: Live Event - Lucerne Festival Summer (Conductor: Václav Neumann) - February 25, 2010

Lucerne Festival Summer

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Written during the 1984 summer Lucerne Festival; rediscovered and published in 2010
Varied results in the morning

The concert this morning was better or worse, depending on one’s point of view. The first work was a seldom-performed Overture to Libussa by Smetana. It appears to be a rather attractive work, but conductor Václav Neumann seemed unable to put it all together. The ending—coming out of nowhere—was too abrupt. He has a most annoying habit of cutting off soft passages with far too much hand jerk. Sadly, the effect created equaled the gesture.

As is typical with European orchestras, the players came on stage en masse (including the concertmaster—this has a nice effect and I’m considering it for Nepean). (In fact that system was adopted, which—aside from tuning—meant that the first notes heard by the audience were the programmed music, rather than the more common North American habit of a cacophony of warm-ups and excerpts from the band.)

Mendelssohn’s G Minor Concerto was a real disaster. Here, Neumann used the score but may as well not have bothered. Soloist Bruno-Leonardo Gelber really wanted to fly, so it soon became a game of catch-me-if-you-can. The first movement was conducted in four, robbing it of any hope for sculpted phrases. The orchestral “chunks” with the piano were sporadically rendered and, for the most part, had little zest or enthusiasm. Nonetheless, yet again the fans were oblivious to all of these blemishes (and more than a few wrong notes from the piano) and proffered many curtain calls—which, thankfully, went unrewarded: no encore followed the thunderous applause.

After intermission, we had Dvořák Symphony No. 5. Once more, this was my first public hearing of this relatively obscure work and, again, it was easy to understand how only a master conductor could make it come to glorious life. Indeed, it was well played but the marvellous melodic/inner lines and any feeling for the harmonic/modal shifts were sadly lacking. The coda of the Finale finally got going mainly due to the brass which, while typically crass and a bit “cracked” (trumpets leading the mishit parade), the closing fanfares blazed forward with an impressive sense of drama.

Needless to say, the audience went wild and drew another Slavonic Dance for their trouble. By now, it is easy to see how cynical Neumann is: after adding another demanded encore to his belt, he has the orchestra stand then walk off stage. This is in stark contrast to Fischer-Dieskau: every time the audience asked for an encore, he complied (five times: cross-reference below), which comes across far more sincerely than the calculating Czechs.

Note: so far, while the audiences are always attentive and appreciative there have been no standing ovations—perhaps they know more than they choose to reveal! We’ll see what happens when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has its turn in the limelight. JWR

Dvořák Symphony No. 5
Berlin Philhamonic Orchestra
DGG 463 158.2
Four stars

Historical Comparison

Rafael Kubelik’s reading with the Berliners at the top of their game of Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony is as fresh today as when it was recorded in 1972. The opening movement exudes confidence and joy with only some oddly chirping clarinets and sluggish trumpets marring the result. It’s great fun to hear the embryo of the Eighth Symphony in the closing moments and instructive to experience the near unanimous attack on the final chord, which is almost a trademark where the miniscule untidiness is more than compensated for by the extraordinary craft.

The first theme of the “Andante con moto” is uncannily similar to the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, yet predates it by a couple of years. The cello section is particularly radiant when it’s their turn and the full-bodied orchestration is deftly presented by conductor and recording engineers alike. The split violins are also a great pleasure in true stereophonic glory.

The “Scherzo” which follows without a break is filled with unbridled happiness and rhythmic accuracy on the dotted phrases that others can only hope to emulate (cross-reference below). The return is simply stunning.

With sturdy octaves infusing all subjects in the dark and brooding “Finale,” Dvořák slips the bonds of what might be expected (too much minor mode according to some commentators) and starts to foreshadow his breakthrough in the next four symphonies. The reedy bass clarinet marvellously leads everyone back to the return yet the music seems to run out of drive leaving the ear with more of a thoughtful than resounding adieu and a closing cadence that is at one with The Moldau. JWR

Between Performances

During the 1984 festival’s 24-day span, a wide variety of non-musical activities was available both in Lucerne and surrounding environs. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best! The article below is an update from the 2010 experience.

With special exhibits such as Andy Warhol - The Early Sixties: Paintings and Drawings 1961-1964 and a treasure trove of works from Swiss masters and their contemporaries, time spent in the Kunstmuseum Basel is a stimulating change from the musical arts. JWR

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Conductor - Václav Neumann
Comparative conductor - Rafael Kubelik
Overture to Libussa - Bedřich Smetana
Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 - Felix Mendelssohn
Symphony No. 5 in F Major - Antonin Dvořák
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