Lucerne Festival Orchestra / Abbado, Lucerne Festival, Lucerne

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The Independent Culture

Slow-moving woodwinds etched out Debussy's "Nuages", the first of his Trois Nocturnes, slowly but surely pulling focus on the festival's opening concert. It's something of a paradox that Debussy's brand of impressionism demands absolute clarity – and the medieval city's handsome concert hall delivers it, blending and delineating to perfection.

But you can only get out of an acoustic what you put into it, and Claudio Abbado's Lucerne Festival Orchestra has one of the most refined palettes in the world. This is an orchestra of principals, star soloists who leave their egos at the stage door; they play for each other as well as for us. In the outer movements of the Debussy, the music seemed to find its own space; the central "Fêtes" was, by contrast, all darting light and rhythmic élan, its trumpet-led procession arriving with jubilant whoops from the cellos.

A pity, then, that the wordless "Sirens" of the final nocturne seemed to infect the soloist, Elina Garanca, in her reading of Ravel's Shéhérazade. This is a piece where the inflections of the French texts carry so much of the musical characterisation that Garanca's unidiomatic enunciation made her just another "instrumental" colour blended into the orchestral texture.

Abbado's fabulously accomplished reading of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique inspired playing of almost indecent relish. Come "the witching hour" of the finale, signalled by especially lurid glissandi in oboe and flute, Berlioz's grotesque knees-up for the sisters of the night brought string playing of such sensational unanimity that it was as if we and not the opium-crazed artist were hallucinating.

That musical hangover quickly lifted the following morning. In an ingenious programme spanning four centuries, Gabrieli segued into Schnittke and Frescobaldi into Gubaidulina as though the intervening years had simply dissolved. The juxtapositions were breathtaking, the virtuosity of the playing jaw-dropping. It was pure theatre to be spirited from the Renaissance to the Gothic through the rude imaginings of Schnittke, whose "Schall und Hall" for trombone and organ blew a few momentous raspberries for posterity.