The Lucerne Festival is a great place to hear international orchestras but it also makes room for the city's own orchestra, the Lucerne Symphony, which since 2004 has been led by Houston-born John Axelrod. Judging from his programme of three works by 20th-century Jewish composers, each of which is an unconventional requiem, Axelrod has imaginative ideas and the wherewithal to bring them off.
Kurt Weill's 1929 Berliner Requiem, to six texts by Bertold Brecht, pays respects in its bitter way to the dead of the first world war but doesn't glorify them. "A Home for Every Soldier," German politicians apparently urged, but here that home is a coffin, reward for serving the Fatherland. The jaunty, music-hall tunefulness of Weill's score stresses the numbing ordinariness of it all. The contribution by the male voices of the Berlin Radio Chorus epitomised that group's superb work all evening.
Of course, the Berliner Requiem foreshadows the tumultuous future as much as it marks the past, and the Holocaust was the subject of the works that followed. In Schoenberg's intenseA Survivor from Warsaw, the survivor relates (in Sprechtstimme delivered by the Israeli composer Noam Sheriff) how prisoners, forced to count off to give a tally for the gas chambers, spontaneously take up the Shema Yisroel from Deuteronomy. Few works by Schoenberg speak with such immediacy.
Leonard Bernstein's "Kaddish" Symphony No 3, named after the prayer for the dead, also has a speaker role, for which Bernstein originally supplied the text. Not happy with his effort, he urged his friend, the Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, to write a new one, which Pisar recited here in its European premiere. Given Pisar's remarkable story of endurance as a teenager in the death camps, the text is at times unbearably moving. Bernstein's music takes on a greater focus as a result, but Pisar also supplies an element of hope that comports with the earthy rhythms and consoling music Bernstein gave the Kaddish texts. Axelrod's rhythmically energetic performance caught the music's emotionality while avoiding bathos.