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The inaugural concert by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra from
2003 was the subject of this wonderful DVD entitled,
“Abbado in Lucerne.” It was released the following year, on
the EuroArts label.

Lasting less than two hours, this DVD also features an
informative, 50-minute documentary regarding the history of
the Lucerne Festival. It was first held in 1938 when conductor
Arturo Toscanini conducted at Tribschen, the home of
composer Richard Wagner during the late 1860’s and early
1870’s. The documentary discusses the key aims of the
Lucerne Festival through the years, along with the
“growing pains” encountered by such organizations. Valuable
historic film clips were included of various conductors who
worked at the Festival, such as Rudolph Kempf, Ernest
Ansermet, Herbert von Karajan, Rafael Kubelik, and others.
There’s even a clip of pianist Edwin Fischer, demonstrating
an excerpt from Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5”
(The Emperor) for a master class. Maestro Claudio Abbado
and numerous orchestral musicians in the current Lucerne
Festival Orchestra are interviewed, along with earlier interview
footage of Maestro von Karajan and various administrators.
This is an excellent documentary, and simply must be watched.

Then, there’s the concert itself . . . I’ve seen this orchestra
perform five different Mahler symphonies on DVD, under
Maestro Abbado; therefore, I was prepared for an awesome
display of orchestral playing and communal music making.
I certainly wasn’t disappointed! The program consisted of
two major works by Claude Debussy (1862-1918):
“Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien,” from 1911, and “La Mer,”
composed between 1903 and 1905.

The first piece, “Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien,” was of
particular interest to me, because I don’t recall having heard
or seen a “complete” version with two sopranos, chorus and
orchestra. It’s usually played as a relatively short, orchestral
“Suite,” but here it was performed in a glorious, 35-minute
version, which I now recall was technically incomplete.
Originally, this piece was written as incidental music for a play,
and although it was given in concert form here, dramatic touches
were employed. These enhancements included imaginative lighting,
as well as the occasional distant positioning of the marvelous
sopranos Eteri Gvazava and Rachel Harnisch, along with the
cor anglais player. In addition, the excellent Schweizer Kammerchor
was positioned in the balcony and would occasionally rotate
while singing. The performance of “La Mer” was revelatory.

During one of the interview segments, Maestro Abbado states
that this special orchestra consists of musicians who play a lot
of chamber music, and are used to listening to each other. He
“hit the nail on the head” with that statement, which I can
confirm, after watching six DVDs of this orchestra. This was
just one of the reasons that their performances of the Debussy
works were so special. The other factor was Abbado’s clear
communication from the podium, and his overall conception
of the music. I’m not going to waste time groping for
superlatives, but I will say that I felt truly privileged to witness
such music making. It was also stunningly well-recorded, with
great camera work.

I’m making it a point to find and watch any remaining DVD
releases that I haven’t seen by this orchestra. They’re just too
good to pass up!