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Swiss holy nights

17 April 2015

by William Dundas


THE Lucerne Festival, in Switzerland, has been going for more than 75 years. Now it comprises Easter and summer festivals, and a piano festival. The Easter Festival, established in 1988, takes place two weeks before Easter and runs through Palm Sunday, with a special focus on sacred music.

This year, Ingo Metzmacher and the SWR Vocal Ensemble of Stuttgart (SWR, Südwestrundfunk, is the broadcasting corporation for south-western Germany) gave an elegant and spacious performance of three Psalm settings by Felix Mendelssohn for unaccompanied choir. The choir sang with a clean focus and projected clearly into the body of the concert hall at the KKL.The texts came from Psalms 2, 43 and 22.1-8,14-16, 18-28.

In Psalm 2, there was effective repeating of the phrase "rod of iron" and a very florid setting of the Glory be to the Father, with antiphonal entries of varying speeds and volumes.

Psalm 43, "Judge me, O God", was treated effectively with male singers leading and the female singers giving the response, and with the final affirmation in unison. Psalm 22, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" was the big sing for full choir, with a brisk section for the text "He trusted in the Lord to deliver him". Another noteworthy section was the start of "Ye who fear the Lord, praise him". Following entries were fast, and melded into a convincing affirmation of the goodness of our Lord.

After the interval, Metzmacher conducted the SWR Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg in a sensitive and illuminating performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.

My second concert was a performance of Dvořák's Stabat Mater. Mariss Jansons conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The soloists were Erin Wall (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Christian Elsner (tenor), and Liang Li (bass).

After a lengthy orchestral introduction, the tenors open the choral "Stabat Mater dolorosa", duly taken up by the remaining choir and the quartet of soloists in their turn, before closing with a reprise of the opening text sung by the soloists and chorus, accompanied by a soothing orchestration.

Thus a template has been set for the entire work. The woodwind, often lower woodwind, precede and accompany choral entries, and the ends of many sections of text feature the flute, alone or combined with other instruments. Each section begins with dark orchestral intensity and ends supported by a cool and calming lightness in the winds.

The orchestral playing was truly supportive of the choir and soloists. This is not a work of sweeping melodies. Jansons drew, as ever, a poised orchestral line: be it moving from instrument to instrument, or around the sections of the orchestra.

That said, the final section "While my body here decays", has spirited, dramatic and loud moments. After a reprise of the opening line, the decay of the orchestral sound was very atmospheric. The upper strings seem to spiral endlessly upwards over steady beats on the timpani and double basses. This was a stunning performance by all participants.

The following night, I heard the same orchestra and conductor give a persuasive performance of Bruckner's Sixth Symphony.




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