There wasn’t going to be a Lucerne Festival this year. The annual month-long squillion-dollar international beano got cancelled, along with the rest of Europe’s musical life, round about the time that we were all starting to get bored of banana bread. Then suddenly, in late July, it was on again. The Swiss government authorised distanced and masked audiences of up to a thousand, and a series of nine concerts was rapidly improvised with locally available talent — which, when you have the determination, contacts and (crucially) bank balance of the Lucerne Festival, means people such as Cecilia Bartoli, Igor Levit and, for these opening concerts, Martha Argerich and Herbert Blomstedt, plus a scaled-down Lucerne Festival Orchestra.
The first reaction is amazement that something so like normality is happening at all. The second, of course, is raging, blood-spitting envy. They make it look so easy: Covid or no Covid, when you buy a train ticket from Zurich to Lucerne, the machine automatically offers festivalgoers a discount. Details like this simply reinforce that characteristically Swiss sensation of having stepped into a slightly too perfect parallel world: a Zardoz-like bubble, sheltered from history, where elegant, affluent people listen to Mozart while the rest of Europe stares bleakly at second waves, recession and, for all we know, Sean Connery flying around in a colossal stone head. With the sunshine on the mountains, the paddle steamers like swans on the lake, and the audience all obediently wearing their branded Festival face masks, the Lucerne Festival defies you to resist its charms.
So naturally, you just want to shove the knife in and twist it; and keep twisting until the UK’s malnourished orchestras get a share of that Patek Philippe-advert slickness, that casually worn exclusivity, and of course that lovely, lovely money. But then — well, Argerich and Blomstedt played Beethoven, and there’s no arguing with that. He turned 93 last month; she’s a lot younger. But if you placed their combined ages end to end, you’d finish up back around the time that Richard Wagner fled the revolution of 1849. Perhaps Switzerland really does exist inside some kind of rejuvenating stasis field. Blomstedt walked on with a springy step and snapped out the opening chords of an Eroica symphony that could almost have been played on period instruments.
Musicians talk breathlessly about the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, which is not always a good sign, and I’d feared a super-saturated wallow in luxuriously upholstered stodge. Instead, a 37-piece orchestra (socially distanced, naturally) followed Blomstedt’s neat gestures with the eagerness and energy of a youth orchestra. Tempos were fast, rhythms were taut, and the musical argument clipped along with classical precision. For every moment of high-calorie virtuoso swagger — the horn calls in the Scherzo must have been audible from the top of Mount Pilatus — there was playing of such unaffected clarity that you forgot you were listening to (allegedly) the best orchestra in the world. Blomstedt slammed the symphony into the double bar, and the audience sat in silence before applauding. Whereupon Blomstedt lifted the score — which he hadn’t used — and shook it at them. At 93, presumably, one has one’s priorities straight.
Blomstedt and Argerich had begun with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and here, too, there was something moving about two veterans expending so much love on a piece by a distinctly gauche 25-year-old. Some of the gear changes in this concerto are so clunky that if composers had to pass driving tests, Beethoven would have been failed at the kerbside. None of which mattered to Blomstedt or to Argerich, who has an artless way of phrasing, and a subtlety of touch that can make a bare C major scale sound like a philosophical truth. She went at the finale as if spring-loaded, after a slow movement so limpid, so natural, and played with such caressing gentleness that it felt almost too intimate for a public concert. The audience, roaring, gave her an instant ovation, which was wholly understandable and at the same time seemed entirely to miss the point.
The following night the orchestra was reduced to seven players for a determinedly sunny programme of Mozart’s Divertimento K.251 and Beethoven’s Septet. There were no printed programmes (too infectious) so it doubled as an exercise in musical blind-tasting. That formidably accurate horn player, who could modulate his tone from spectral whisper to full-blooded heart-cry within a single phrase? Turns out it was Stefan Dohr of the Berlin Philharmonic. The youthful-looking first violin and the grey-haired viola player, who duetted with jazz-like freedom during Beethoven’s variation movement? Raphael Christ and his father Wolfram Christ, a player whose own website describes him, with some justification, as ‘legendary’. At moments like that, the head spins. Sometimes — if only for the duration of a piece of chamber music — your heroes really are everything you’d hoped they’d be.