The week in classical: Berlin Philharmonic/ Petrenko; Partenope at the Lucerne festival

This year’s Lucerne festival has chosen “crazy” (“verrückt”) as its theme. It could be the choice any day, any season. Much of the greatest music, many composers, some performers and the world we live in answer to the description. The complexities of this past year, not least the need to restrict the Swiss city’s beautiful KKL concert hall to little more than half its usual 1,800-strong audience capacity, heighten its aptness. For an event that lasts a month and offers some 90 symphonic and chamber concerts, Lucerne allowed itself elasticity in interpreting its theme. “Crazy” embraces the mental health of composers, the eccentricity of particular works, even the very way concerts are conceived.

Under its longstanding director, Michael Haefliger, this endeavour balances elite international performance – star pianists Yuja Wang and Igor Levit are among this year’s lineup – with artistic risk. Its 16 world premieres outstrip the Proms in number, and this autumn Lucerne will host its inaugural Forward festival, devoted to contemporary music. Rebecca Saunders (b1967), British-born, Berlin-based, is this summer’s composer in residence, as well as recipient of the generous Roche commission, donated by the Swiss healthcare multinational since 2003. Its self-imposed brief is to “venture beyond the conventional”: a brave dare when it comes to new classical music. (Thomas Adès has just been announced as the next Roche composer.)

My timings did not overlap with Saunders’s main concerts, but I caught her Solitude (2013) for solo cello, played by Charlotte Lorenz, and The Mouth (2020), for soprano (Juliet Fraser) and tape. As usual with Saunders, both works push beyond customary limits of musical sound to create something experimental and startling.

In two concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic directed by their principal conductor and artistic director, the mercurial Kirill Petrenko, the work that appeared least “crazy” turned out to be the most discombobulating. Weber’s scintillating overture to Oberon, Prokofiev’s short, expulsive Piano Concerto No 1 (Anna Vinnitskaya the wild and dextrous soloist) and Josef Suk’s rhapsodic Pohádka léta (“A Summer’s Tale”) all slotted into the festival’s bracing theme, on paper and to the ear. The exception would surely have seemed to be Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony, D944. Ambitious, majestic, vigorous, all fair adjectives for this work, but crazy?

Opening with a two-horn call, progressing to a stately first-movement theme between wind and strings, it doesn’t at first display its seething interior. In many performances it never does and can sound almost staid. Petrenko, whose elusive technique is hard to define – a shrug, an elbow nudge, a click of the heels, an occasional sun salutation at climactic moments – took the symphony’s clear, structural blocks and turned them into molten mass. By the last movement, played at a whirring, super-rapid prestissimo, the entire orchestra was pulsating, as if about to take off. In the finale, the first violins have a four-note figure repeated incessantly, dozens of times, in countless different keys, like a terrible obsession.

When, in Lucerne, they reached the climax – at last, four long notes in unison – they dug bows into strings as if with sheer physical relief at resting their fingers. Towards the end, a hushed, ghostly passage is interrupted with mysterious little fanfares on the oboe (Jonathan Kelly), sounding a threatening reveille. In this mesmerising account, Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic showed this to be music of a brilliant and fevered mind, breathtaking, terrifying. The performance is available at the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. I’m not ready to brave it again yet, but I will.

In the case of Handel’s opera Partenope, folly courses through its plot, a tangle of gender confusion, masquerade and several rival lovers. William Christie conducted a semi-staging, sparklingly performed by Les Arts Florissants and directed by Sophie Daneman. This British baroque-specialist soprano, a regular Les Arts Flo star in the past, is now sharing her expertise with a new generation of singers, members of the ensemble’s academy, Le Jardin des Voix. In a talented cast, the standout performers were the British countertenor Hugh Cutting in the virtuosic, central role of Arsace, at once vain and honey-tongued, and the versatile British mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston as his golden-toned lover, the spurned but dignified Rosmira. Through Handel’s glorious music, love and madness indeed reveal themselves to be crazy twins.

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