By Rebecca Schmid
LUCERNE — Humor is not the first thing one associates with Pierre Boulez, whose 90th birthday was celebrated at the Lucerne Festival on a grand scale. But the theme otherwise serves as a thoughtful framework for a program (Aug. 14-Sept. 13) ranging from warhorses to rarely performed contemporary works. Alongside the American composer-technological innovator Tod Machover, whose residency culminates in his Symphony for Lucerne early next month, the festival has brought into focus the veteran Swiss native Jürg Wyttenbach. The country’s most important representative of instrumental theater, a genre most readily associated with Mauricio Kagel or Georges Aperghis, Wyttenbach plays with the interface between music and language in surreal ways evoking the Dada movement,which was born in Zurich.
The centerpiece of his residency was the premiere of the stage work Der Unfall (The Accident), which lay incomplete following the sudden death of his librettist and long-time friend, Mani Matter, in 1972. That Matter died in a car accident lends eerie significance to the work, which includes lines like, “If I had been a musician, I wouldn’t have been run over.” As if to invoke peace in the tragic circumstances, Der Unfall was interwoven with an earlier song cycle, Sutil und Laar, to poetry by Matter in which the two characters represent himself and Wyttenbach. “Sutil und Laar gently become one spirit,“ concludes the final poem, “Das Ende,” wherein the two have shared several bottles of wine.
As moving as the story is, Der Unfall comes across as too dated to make a strong impact. Writing in the spirit of post-war anti-opera, Wyttenbach and Matter set out to dismantle text from music, scenography from gesture. A speaker and a cappella chorus tell the story while a pantomime accompanies the action. A semi-staging by Désirée Mesier at the Luzerner Theater was driven almost exclusively by attention to text and human interaction, with a mere stool turned on its side to represent the accident in the opening scene. But the forces at hand could not lift off the production. The singers of the Basler Madrigalisten gave strong performances but did not form a convincing troupe, nor was the miming of Daniel Pintaud (who doubled as pianist) terribly polished.
The most inspired scene emerged with a simulation of an orchestral rehearsal in which a soprano flailed her arms before a mimicking chorus: “Legato over the F-sharp,” it repeated back to her growling commands. The Swiss violinist Noëlle-Anne Darbellay, who had given a fearless interpretation of Wyttenbach’s Trois chansons violées für eine singende Geigerin — lamenting a drunken rape with everything from wails above harsh pizzicato to the vibration of a knitting needle beneath the strings of her instrument — then posed as an opera singer, uttering gibberish in vain self-glorification.
The program included works for solo instrumentalists that spoke to Wyttenbach’s iconoclasm. In “Una chica en Nirvana” (2000), the clarinetist Lanet Flores Otero spoke rhythmically in Spanish and took the head off her instrument and plucked the reed against a chair. “Ist Klang der Sinn?” (2008) foregrounds poetry by Matter with economic gestures in the cello, such as a final ripple representing the speaker’s death. In a convincing fusion of music and theater, the cellist Matthias Schranz dropped his head suddenly and the lights fell.
Wyttenbach himself conducted a matinee performance at the Maihof Church ranging from his own works and arrangements to pieces by Charles Ives. Wyttenbach’s Divisions for piano and nine solo strings (1964), which Boulez premiered in Darmstadt, reveals a mastery of texture, building out of dark, primordial colors into a furious dialogue of serialist patterns and decaying resonances. In “Cortège pour violon, accompagné de ‘La Fanfare Harmonie du village’” (2013), a musical reimagining of the Gustave Courbet painting “Un enterrement à Ornans” performed against a video projection of the 19th-century image, the violinist plays and narrates as various figures of the town funeral appear, from a bass tuba representing the mayor to trumpeters marching in as revolutionaries. If the international soloist Carolin Widmann’s magnetic presence and virtuosic playing made a strong case for this pictorial work, Wyttenbach’s intention of representing Courbet himself as a “laughing Pierrot” escaped me entirely.
An arrangement of Mussorgsky’s song cycle The Nursery meanwhile revealed Wyttenbach as a skilled orchestrator. The original piano harmonies are dramatized by shivering strings and tasteful woodwind embellishments, while the inclusion of accordion — and, in the final “Prince Kater,” tambourine — enhance the melodies’ folk origins. The young soprano Maria Korovatskaya gave a moving performance, both tragic and sweet, while Wyttenbach led the student musicians of the Junge Philharmonie Zentralschweiz in a sensitive, well-shaded but not always tight performance, perhaps a result of the 80-year-old composer’s shaking right hand. Ives’ folklore-based Third Symphony similarly received a well-paced performance in which one couldn’t ignore the lack of homogeneity in the strings.
At the festival’s headquarters in the KKL, a modern building with panoramic views of the Lake Lucerne, stately perfection proved the standard for a performance of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Bernard Haitink. Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony unfurled with both lightness and depth, a manner of playing supported by the main concert hall’s transparent acoustics. Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony was performed with burnished precision and sinuous intensity and yet the music’s playfulness was at times subordinated to structural grandeur. In Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, the orchestra proved a fine match for soloist Maria João Pires, whose playing remained immaculate despite the intense shaping of each phrase and unexpected emphasis on the bass line.
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s appearance under Daniele Gatti more easily evoked the festival theme of “humor,” from the biting attacks in Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony to the sardonic brass in Stravinsky’s ballet parody Jeu de cartes. The program ended with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, in which Gatti’s attention to detail and the orchestra’s sprightly energy brought this colorful, neo-Baroque work to life. The mezzo-soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci struck an ideal balance between the sensually operatic and the intimate, while the bass-baritone Alex Esposito was both polished and seductive. Following an all-day tribute to Boulez, including eight world premieres by everyone from György Kurtág to up-and-coming Piotr Peszat, I wondered at what other festival it would be possible to have such a well-rounded experience, in which artists — in the context of sound, intelligent programming — seem to give their best at all times.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.