My London pride
David Mellor on a memorable Easter festival in Lucerne In 1938, Toscanini, having refused to conduct in Salzburg as a further protest against fascism, raised his baton in Lucerne and inaugurated a festival that has attract- ed the world's greatest musicians. It is a festival steeped in memories: Furtwangler, in 1954, weeks from death, leading memo- rable Beethoven and Bruckner with our own Philharmonia; Lipatti, a few years ear- lier, fragile and mortally ill, contributing a Mozart K. 647, a recording of which still, 40 years on, delights millions.
But music is not just a matter of history here. This summer's festival is as enticing as ever, and this year, for the first time, Lucerne had an Easter festival. It should have started last year but, disgracefully, or perhaps risibly, the New York Philharmon- ic cancelled at a few weeks' notice because of fear of flying in the aftermath of the Gulf war. This year the festival's director, Mathias Bamert, looked to hardier souls, the musicians of London, to get things going. And everyone turned up — well, almost. Mathias is Swiss, but lives in Lon- don, and is well-known as a conductor to many British music-lovers. In this festival he sought to achieve a balance between the summer festival's trade mark of orchestral concerts of real distinction and a recogni- tion that in this profoundly Catholic city Easter is a religious festival and not merely a secular holiday. So a number of 'Passion concerts' were staged: the St Matthew Pas- sion in the splendour of the Jesuitkirche (surely one of the most beautiful, and best restored, church interiors in Europe) and two others featuring our own Andrew Par- rott and his Taverner Choir and Orchestra. They acquitted themselves splendidly, par- ticularly in the second concert in the vast Hofkirche in the centre of Lucerne. Math- ias believes in accessibility, and this concert was free, to make up for the inevitably high prices he needs to charge for the symphony concerts. He was rewarded by a packed house on Easter night to listen to a difficult but rewarding progian line ranging from Hildegarde of Bingen and de Machaut to Messiaen and Penderecki, who was pre- sent. The memory of this packed congrega- tion, each holding a lighted candle in the darkened church, listening with rapt atten- tion to sonic extraordinary music, will linger long.
The orchestral honours were awarded to the London Symphony Orchestra, who also played marvellously well, though only after a tricky start. At their first concert, the orchestra sat on the platform for more than 20 minutes before an increasingly restive audience (even the Swiss get restive under provocation) while a search party went out to find a trumpeter who apparently thought the concert was some other time.
But once everything got going, the orchestra redeemed itself by its playing. In the first concert, under the orchestra's music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, a searching Nulls d'Ete (with Agnes Baltsa) was followed by a suitably rousing Britten, with all brass in place. But it has to be said that Tilson Thomas, fine musician and communicator though he is, did not have much to say in the second half. Brahms's Second Symphony was a bold choice in a hall that has heard so many of the really great interpreters of the central German classics, and one that did not really come off. There was a tangible want of sub- stance, aggravated by Tilson Thomas's extravagant gestures, learnt at the knee of the late great Lenny Bernstein himself and if anything even more irritating from a dis- ciple than from the real thing.
But the next night, under the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons, was a revelation — quite simply one of the best concerts I have been to in a long time. Even the Swiss were shouting their bravos with an aban- don never hitherto regarded as a national characteristic. And well they might. An alert Oberon Overture, with the musicians playing on the edge of their chairs, was fol- lowed by a Strauss Oboe Concerto of con- summate virtuosity and musicianship from Heinz Holliger. In a sense this was no sur- prise from the finest wind-player of his generation. But, as Mathias Bamert observed, in 20 years of close collaboration with Holliger he had never heard him play it so well.
The Mahler First Symphony which fol- lowed after the interval was peerless. Jan- sons has the hallmark of a really great conductor, the ability to nourish the detail without obscuring the structure of even the most complex piece. This performance made Mahler's first symphony seem not an apprentice work pointing ahead to the
achievements of the later symphonies, but their equal. Memorable stuff. .
A protege of the legendary Mravinsky at Leningrad, Jansons was held back for many years by the Soviet system. But in 1979 he took over the Oslo Philharmonic, and in little more than a decade he has turned it from a provincial band into one of Europe's most exciting ensembles, much in demand in the recording studio and at all the leading festivals. Now his engagement book is full of dates with all the best orchestras. Just before Easter, the Vienna Philharmonic, whose ability to look down their noses at conductors is unrivalled even in London, actually asked him for more rehearsal time — a rare compliment.
As for the LSO, one left the hall feeling that no fair-minded person could have said Vienna, or Berlin, or Chicago, or Philadel- phia would have done better. My little bosom swelled with pride.
David Mellor is Secretary of State for Nation- al Heritage.