This year's nocturnal theme at the Swiss festival inspired three dazzling musical performances
Themes. Maybe the largest white elephants in the festival programmer's bestarium of musical ideas. But at the Lucerne festival this year there was that rarest of phenomena: a theme, in this case Night, that actually meant something when it came to the concerts.
Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas's In Vain was an hour-long ensemble work that made a shattering nocturnal impression, even after an earlier concert in the evening ended with Abbado's performance of Mahler's death-haunted 10th Symphony. The Ensemble Phoenix and conductor Jürg Henneberger began Haas's piece with a gloomy instrumental tremor, and things only got darker after that. The "night" element of In Vain was most obvious in two long sections played in complete darkness in the auditorium. Thanks to Swiss health-and-safety regulations there was complete darkness in the Luzerner Saal – not even an exit sign was visible in the murk. The brilliance of the orchestra was not diminished by the invisibility of their notes on the music stands. Instead, the music's drama was amplified in this manufactured night, building to a thunderous climax in a second section complete with flashes of lightning.
In Vain was composed in 2000 as a protest against the return of rightwing politics to his homeland, Austria. But unlike many pieces of agitprop, Haas finds a way of making his music reflect on what happened when Jörg Haider's party achieved dangerous political success, and so much more. The idea at the heart of In Vain is that the musicbecomes progressively more catastrophic, rather than more celebratory – evoking the dark return of an idea or ideology. It's an inversion of more conventional Austrian music – such as Anton Bruckner's symphonies – as Haas himself said before the concert. You hear it throughout In Vain, as the opening shimmer chillingly returns after a section of gigantically slow music. Haas realises the idea brilliantly, even if I felt the return-as-catastrophe idea was more common in earlier Austrian music than Haas admitted. Schubert and Mahler, at least, achieved something similar in their sonatas and symphonies. No matter: In Vain is a monumental work. Listen to it here – just make sure you close the curtains first.
Violist-composer-artist Charlotte Hug's installation Insomnia and her performance piece Slipway to Galaxies were both inspired by the night. Hug, who is this year's artiste étoile in Lucerne, spent 40 hours without sleep in a Zurich laboratory. She recorded her bodily activity and created gigantic scrawlings on vast rolls of tracing paper about her experience. In the art museum of Lucerne, surrounded by the vivid visual detritus of her sleep experiments, she created an improvised performance, interpreting her drawings as "son-icons" – scores, basically – for her vocal and instrumental imaginings. Her performance was far from soporific, as she deconstructed her bow and wrapped it round the viola, and screamed and sang into the sheets of paper hanging from the ceiling. This was night reconfigured as a place for flights of wild creativity, even if Hug's hour-long performance was more about moment-to-moment energy than dramatic structure.
All that, and pianist Maurizio Pollini too, who played the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni's Il Rumore del Tempo with the dazzling soprano Anna Prohaska and three players from the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Setting four nocturnal poems by Blok, Trakl, Chlebnikov and Zanzotto, Manzoni's piece was a song-cycle that interleaved solos for Pollini between duets for Prohaska, the percussionist and the violist. The result was an unpredictable musical dreamscape that veered between violence and warped lyricism. The ending was most memorable, as Pollini tolled a single note into silence after a huge explosion from the whole ensemble. This focused, febrile performance was the highlight of Pollini's concert; his playing of three Beethoven sonatas after the interval was weirdly disappointing – the textures of the Waldstein, Appassionata and Op 54 sonatas submerged beneath a chiaroscuro of pedal and played at speeds often too quick for his hands to keep up with. But then, strange things can happen in the night, to performers as well as listeners.
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