Saturday 27 January 2024

A winter week focusing on the piano yet hosted by an orchestra: intendant Numa Bischof Ullmann introduces Lucerne's Le Piano Symphonique & looks forward to the 2025 festival

Pianists Yoav Levanon and Martha Argerich, and intendant Numa Bischoff Ullmann backstage at the 2024 Le Piano Symphonique in Lucerne (Photo: © Luzerner Sinfonieorchester / Philipp Schmidli)
Pianists Yoav Levanon and Martha Argerich, and intendant Numa Bischof Ullmann backstage at the 2024 Le Piano Symphonique in Lucerne (Photo: Luzerner Sinfonieorchester / Philipp Schmidli)

Lucerne's Le Piano Symphonique festival has just completed its fourth season, and having focused on Brahms, Saint-Saens and Schumann, the 2024 festival focused on the twin icons of Liszt and Schubert. The festival is based at KKL (Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern) in Lucerne and is run by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, intendant Numa Bischof Ullmann, chief conductor Michael Sanderling. If you wonder why a piano festival in Lucerne, the question really is why not as the history of the piano in Lucerne is astonishing with Rachmaninoff living nearby (as did Wagner), Scriabin living and writing in the area, Liszt living in the area, Edwin Fischer giving masterclasses and much much more.

The festival came about because the piano festival run by the Lucerne Festival (no relation) came to an end and KKL looked for ideas for a new piano festival. The result, a winter week focusing on the piano yet hosted by an orchestra, with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra's intendant, Numa Bischof Ullmann in charge of the festival. Numa emphasises the Le Piano Symphonique has friendly relations with the Lucerne Festival with the orchestra being a regular participant. The creation of Le Piano Symphonique was intended to be enriching for Lucerne rather than in competition.

This year's festival had an extra fillip to it. Having performed extensively at last year's festival [see my review of her 2023 performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto], pianist Martha Argerich has become the festival's Pianiste Associée with a significant presence at the 2024 festival and similar planned for the 2025 festival.

KKL, Luzern - © KKL Luzern, Switzerland, Photo: Ivan Suta
KKL, Luzern - (© KKL Luzern, Switzerland, Photo: Ivan Suta)

The format of the evening concerts is distinctive with two halves, each of which is a complete event in its own right. Numa was keen to break the mould of programming where there is the convention that if you perform a concerto it is preceded by an overture and followed by a symphony. Sometimes the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra's own concerts break this format, but that can be tricky. With Le Piano Symphonique, Numa feels they have started to explore new areas and he points to the final evening concert in 2024 which moved from Liszt's Totentanz for piano and orchestra, to the premiere of Marc André Hamelin's piano solo Hexensabbat to Schubert's Die Winterreise to Bach to Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 and Ravel's La Valse on two pianos. All in the space of an evening, and encompassing six pianists (plus orchestra). If all this seems lavish, then Numa also emphasises that the festival is fully privately funded.

The festival is a distinct brand run by the orchestra alongside its regular subscription season and its significant education activities, so there is a sense that all are under the same umbrella and complement each other. And, of course, it means that the festival has an orchestra at its disposal for concerts.

The orchestra's subscription concerts and the festival share a common audience base, but there are visitors too. The orchestra travels the world, and sometimes audiences come to Lucerne as a result. Festival audiences are substantially Swiss German, but with an increasing international audience too along with developing Swiss French and Swiss Italian audiences (and Swiss Italian radio was recording part of this year's festival). In three years, the festival have been able to establish the brand and create a national week for the piano in Switzerland rather than just another festival.

KKL, Luzern (Photo: KKL, Luzern)
KKL, Luzern (Photo: KKL, Luzern)

Whilst repertoire focuses very much on the piano classics, there are new discoveries alongside these (such as last year's Paderewski Piano Concerto, see my review) and new commissions. And Numa points out that he is not afraid of running out of repertoire, just look at Haydn, Scarlatti, Chopin or Liszt's keyboard works. He adds that he is not a completist, and would love to be able to include Alkan, Hahn, Faure, Pierné and so on. But they want to balance the known and the unknown, however they have no obligations or quotas, no strict quotas, simply a wish and a desire to create music.

Also, Numa points out that repertoire should be driven by the artists who can deliver it, but there is a uniqueness to the programming, much of it is distinctive to the festival or home grown, so that this year there are premieres of commissioned works from Brett Dean and Marc André Hamelin. But for Numa, the list is endless and he long ago gave up trying to programme everything.

He wants the programmes to encourage the audience to wake up and get inspiration, from the simplicity of Bach as much as something larger scale, and he suggests that Bach's humanism is an inspiration for many people. And there is also the idea of simplicity of being more humble, that in a world where there is too much noise we can reduce things down to just one person at a piano. Reducing things down to their essence and emotion. In fact, the orchestral members have a busy life themselves and for many it means something to them to be part of the festival.

David Fray, Elisabeth Leonskaja - Le Piano Symphonique, Lucerne (Photo: Philipp Schmidli)
David Fray, Elisabeth Leonskaja - Le Piano Symphonique, Lucerne 2024 (Photo: Philipp Schmidli)

But in addition to great repertoire, the festival wants to support young or neglected artists; Numa points out that some artists may have strong careers in their home country yet not be well-known globally. There is also the way the festival gives mature (even vintage) artists a chance to be themselves. This years festival not only featured Martha Argerich but Elisabeth Leonskaja and Mikhail Pletnev. I ask Numa whether he thinks that Martha Argerich's new role might be a risk for the festival as she is over 80. But he is philosophical, saying that the appointment simply came as a result of a conversation after she enjoyed previous appearances at the festival and that you have no way of knowing the future (he is in fact a devotee of mountain hiking!). Also, the nuance is in the wording, associated.

Many of the festival's events come about in dialogue with the musicians, and Numa describes creating the festival as a constant dialogue, so something might develop over a period of years, but eventually shapes what is happening artistically on stage.

For the first time, the festival has announced its plans for the forthcoming year so the ideas for the 2025 festival are there for us to appreciate, though again Numa emphasises the idea of an on-going journey so things may change.

Central to the 2025 festival is pianist Evgeny Kissin's Shostakovich 2025 project where, over two nights, he and friends explore Shostakovich's songs and chamber music with piano. Other visitors will include Fazil Say performing Bach's Goldberg Variations, chansonier HK Gruber with pianist Kirill Gerstein, Leif Ove Andsnes in two Norwegian composers, Grieg and Geirr Tveitt, and Kiveli Dörken in chamber music by Mahler, Brahms, Dvorak and Suk. Pianist Yunchan Lim will perform Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Martha Argerich will be performing, with friends, in as yet undecided programmes and there will be a recital from one of the finalists of the Concours Geza Anda 2024. Argerich is on the jury of the competition and will select one of the finalists to perform. She will also be performing in Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals twice, once in an adult concert with narrations from her daughter, Annie Dutoit, and once in a family concert.

Le Piano Symphonique - Jean Rondeau in the Neubad, Lucerne in 2023 (Photo: Philipp Schmidli)
Le Piano Symphonique - Jean Rondeau in the Neubad, Lucerne in 2023 (Photo: Philipp Schmidli)

And for those that attended in 2023, the swimming baths are back! Tamar Halperin, harpsichord, and Michael Wollny, piano, are giving a crossover jazz concert in the Neubad (a former swimming pool that is now a venue and which hosted harpsichordist Jean Rondeau in 2023). Whilst Daniel Ciobanu will be performing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in the Kunstmuseum Luzern.

Planet Hugill at Le Piano Symphonique 2024

  • From Classical to Romantic: I chat to Michael Sanderling about the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra & Le Piano Symphonique festival - interview
  • Homage to Liszt: pianist Benjamin Grosvenor on astonishing form in Liszt and Brett Dean - concert review
  • Liszt Cycle 2: From large-scale Liszt and Wagner to intimate Schumann and Schubert - concert review
  • Made in Switzerland: tenor Daniel Behle and pianist Oliver Schnyder combine musicality and intelligence - concert review
  • Liszt Cycle 1: From poetic Liszt and Grieg concertos to a little bit of magic from Martha Argerich and friends - concert review

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