13 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 28

Musi c

Lucerne Festival

John Bridcut

That London is the musical capital of the world is now such a cliché that it is refreshing to find a pocket-sized city like Lucerne throbbing with a feverish musical pulse at every street-corner. Record companies in London never buy street-hoarding space to advertise Muti or Menuhin; along the Embankment there are no illuminated kiosks with photos and record-sleeves of Mathis and Minton — but then it is festival time in Lucerne, and, not content with the indigenous allure of its lakeside setting, the city draws in foreigners of all types to play and to listen.

Lucerne began staging festivals in the fifteenth century, so the International Festival of Music, whose thirty-seventh season has Just ended, is quite a youngster. The big events happen in the Kunsthaus, built in 1931, which cannot house many more than a thousand: intimate perhaps, but noisy for those at the front, and certainly not commercially satisfying. The choice of music is pleasingly unparochial (many would say Switzerland has no alternative), but there was, properly, some Frank Martin and Othmar Schoeck, though no Bloch or Honegger. Each year the Festival has, laudably, a particular slant: in 1974 it was the Second Viennese School (brave, but a trifle foolhardy for the box office), and this year the emphasis was on Berta and Ravel. BartOk becomes an increasingly important figure — arguably more so than Stravinsky — and we shall hear and discover much more about him before and during his centenary in 1981 (not 1991, as the Lucerne programme book, otherwise excellent value, would persistently have us believe). Since Ravel has enjoyed so much attention this year, it was inevitably Bart61( who loomed larger in the Festival, and his Violin Concerto, played by ltzhak Perlman, was the highlight of my visit. Perlman held the key to its bitter-sweetness from his very first note, and it was hard to believe that it was the eve of but his thirtieth birthday.

Apart from the concerts themselves, there was a Bartok-Ravel exhibition, where 1 was intrigued to find that Britten's Simple Symphony was being played as background music. When the disc was over, an onlooker pronounced to the girl running the gramophone, "C'est magnifique!", and she was profuse in her agreement. Feeling somewhat mischievous, I ' asked her why she was playing Britten, and with a cold smile of reproof ("This is a Bartok exhibi tion") was told that the music was Bartdk's Rumanian Folk-Dances.

It was good to see British music winning such approbation even if under false pretences. (Incidentally, she then had the cheek to pass on to the press a tale of a visitor mistaking Bartok's music for that of Stravinsky — how unforgiveable.) There were only two British artists at the Festival this year: Julian Bream and Yvonne Minton, who won a tremendous ovation after Mahler's Kindertotentieder with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta; the performance, however, did not match the applause. The work clearly means much to her, as a mother, but empathy is to no purpose if it clogs the channels of communication to the audience. There was grief, but a private one, and it often seemed inexpressible in music: her tone nearly dried up, and the intonation was way out. The intention was all that is expected of a sensitive artist, but the result fell far short.

The Israel Philharmonic have a tough, bracing tone, admirably suited to The Rite of Spring — never have I been so genuinely frightened by this engulfing music. Mehta is a conductor who knows many of his scores by heart, but he can be rather a 'top-liner', who goes for the tune at the expense of other details, and sometimes conducts the first violins alone, as if everyone else had left. Some of the delightful touches in the wind were ignored in Mozart's seldom-heard Symphony 34, while Brahms' Second was alarmingly uncontrolled in the syncopated passages. A noticeably brash first horn does not help.

The musical giant of Lucerne is, of course, Richard Wagner, who completed Die Meistersinger and Der Ring during his six years at Tribschen, just outside the city. There was no Wagner in this year's Festival, but I felt a visit to the shrine, with cap in hand, was obligatory. This was where the Siegfried or Tribschen Isyll was first performed, and the manuscript is among the museum's exhibits. The villa itself nestles among trees atop a steeply-rising knoll with the evenly-cut, lush Swiss grass sweeping down from the house to the poplar-lined lakeside: the whole ambience was dreamily nineteenth-century, with even a white paddle-steamer passing by, and, believe it or not, the strains of a brass band aboard it drifting across the water.

While England has roasted, Lucerne has had a wretched summer. This can sometimes be useful, as when there was a dramatic and deafening thunderstorm during the Berlin Philharmonic's rendering of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Another storm occurred just before an evening of music by Lutoslawski, so I was in two minds about attending, but virtue/folly prevailed, and I arrived drenched. The composer must have been abashed to find that, for all that the programme called him "one of the leading contemporary composers", he was obscure enough to warrant a detailed description of his career by the compere — fancy that he read Maths at Warsaw University. After his Dance-Preludes for Clarinet and Piano (1954) — pleasant is small-time music — came his Preludes and Fugue for string orchestra (1972), written after he had joined the aleatoric bandwagon. Gone is the neat, individual tang: instead we have an ageing composer playing with the toys of a second childhood. Even the rain outside was preferable to the drip-drip noises in his music.

Festival audiences are exhorted to be formal in their dress, so they are (but no evening dress — shame). What is surprising, and must be worrying to the shirtmakers of Lucerne, is the trend among middle-aged men to wear a white polo-neck pullover with their dinner-jackets — another fashion which Mr Lutoslawski has joined. If only formality in dress were coupled wih precision of timing — the concerts often started ten minutes late. But generally the Festival is run with flair, and the sight of the city lights and the huge floodlit fountain which greets the departing concertgoer beats anything London can offer. What London did offer, however, was a magnificent Grimes at the Proms on my return, whereas it seems you can only hear Britten in Lucerne by mistake.