The Lucerne Festival Strings started life on August 26, 1956, with a well-publicized inaugural concert during the «Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern» (International Music Festival of Lucerne, IMF Lucerne). The initiative stemmed above all from three individuals: Rudolf Baumgartner, who was later artistic director of the ensemble for decades until 1998, the violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Walter Strebi, who had smoothed the way for the founding of the Conservatory of Lucerne in 1942 and in the mid-1950s was acting as president of the IMF Lucerne, now the Lucerne Festival.
Rudolf Baumgartner (1917-2002) was a pupil of the Hungarian violinist Steffi Geyer, who came from the Jenö Hubay school of playing and had been leader of the Collegium Musicum Zurich under Paul Sacher from 1941. In addition to his activities with the Lucerne Festival Strings, Baumgartner was director of Lucerne Conservatory from 1960 to 1987 and was artistic director of the IMF Lucerne from 1970 to 1980.
Considered the most important Austrian violinist of his generation, Wolfgang Schneiderhan (1915-2002) had earlier been leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1938-1950), succeeded Carl Flesch and Georg Kulenkampff in 1948 as director of the violin master class at Lucerne Conservatory and formed a legendary piano trio with the pianist Edwin Fischer and the cellist Enrico Mainardi.
The name of the ensemble was chosen by Rudolf Baumgartner: «That was my idea. We were looking for a name that did not have to be translated for concerts in other countries. It had to mention Lucerne and the Festival, as well as to identify us as a string orchestra. 'Festival Strings Lucerne' or 'Lucerne Festival Strings', depending on where we perform, are the briefest forms we could devise.»¹
The 13-strong Lucerne Festival Strings performed a pure Baroque programme at the inaugural concert, led by Rudolf Baumgartner and featuring him and Wolfgang Schneiderhan as soloists. But in contrast to the Italian chamber orchestras dominant in Europe at the time, like I Musici di Roma and I Virtuosi di Roma, the repertoire very soon included works of the Romantic era, works by early twentieth-century composers and modern music. The ensemble made a name for itself above all in the field of contemporary music at the Lucerne Festival, since at the initiative of Rudolf Baumgartner, it assumed exclusive responsibility for the «musica nova» series at the Festival from 1959 to 1970. The ensemble soon began giving world premieres of works by composers like Frank Martin, Jean Françaix, Bohuslav Martinu, Krzysztof Penderecki, Sándor Veress, Heinrich Sutermeister, Klaus Huber and Iannis Xenakis.
The inaugural concert in 1956 aroused generally enthusiastic response from the press, the Zürcher Woche of September 7, for example, stating: «We had looked forward to the first performance of the Lucerne Festival Strings with high expectations, but had not thought a debut of such high quality to be possible.» That concert led to the ensemble's busy touring programme, with performances at the Salzburg Festival the following summer and in Berlin later in 1957, at the Musikverein in Vienna in January 1958 and at the Salle Gaveau in Paris that May. In that early phase, Wolfgang Schneiderhan had already established contact with Deutsche Grammophon, which gave the orchestra a contract that provided it with financial support over and above that offered by record releases.
The earliest recordings were devoted to Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. In the 1950s Deutsche Grammophon also recorded Ottorino Respighi's Il Tramonto (which includes texts by Shelley sung by a mezzo-soprano), Paul Hindemith's Five Pieces for String Orchestra and - together with wind instruments - piano concertos by Mozart. The recordings released by the Archiv division of Deutsche Grammophon formed an important chapter of vinyl recording history, the Archiv label being among the first to specialize in early music at a time when interest in historical performance practice was mounting, and producing several first releases of works by forgotten or little-known composers, above all of the Baroque era. One of them featuring the Lucerne Festival Strings is that of 1957/1958, which with the soloists Aurèle Nicolet, Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Enrico Mainardi «rediscovered» Giuseppe Tartini. In addition to their numerous recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, in the Baumgartner era the ensemble also recorded for labels like Decca, Ariola-Eurodisc and Denon. A first recording of Dvorák's Serenade for Strings in E major was recorded for Ariola-Eurodisc in 1976.
The soloists who performed with the ensemble in the early years included the violinists Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Arthur Grumiaux, Christian Ferras, Zino Francescatti and Henryk Szeryng, the cellists Pablo Casals, Pierre Fournier, Enrico Mainardi and André Navarra, the pianists Clara Haskil, Mieczyslaw Horszowski and Wilhelm Kempff, the flautists Aurèle Nicolet and Jean-Pierre Rampal, and oboist Heinz Holliger and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
The ensemble made its first overseas tour in 1959, when it performed in the USA, in Canada and in Cuba, then in the throes of revolution. 1962/1963 brought a second tour of the USA. The first tour of Japan took place in 1971, followed by Israel in 1973, South America in 1975, Australia and New Zealand in 1977 and the communist People's Republic of China in 1984, with concerts in Beijing and Guangzhou.
From the start, the ensemble's home has been Lucerne Conservatory, today the Faculty of Music at Lucerne University, situated above the city with a glorious view of Lake Lucerne. Both founders of the Lucerne Festival Strings were active there, and Rudolf Baumgartner, its artistic director, directed the institution from 1960. 1960 was also the year in which the city of Lucerne became the orchestra's official patron.
It was only in 1986, the year of its thirtieth anniversary, that the ensemble gained much-needed financial security; since then, it has been underwritten by the canton and the city of Lucerne: «The canton of Lucerne is extremely interested in ensuring that the LUCERNE FESTIVAL STRINGS remains a world-ranking chamber orchestra. In addition to its artistic importance, this elite ensemble has the welcome side-effect of being an excellent advertisement to the rest of the world.»²
After that development, Rudolf Baumgartner kept his promise and generously donated highly valuable violins in his possession to the non-profit Lucerne Festival Strings Foundation; they included the «ex Hämmerle» Stradivari of 1717 he bought in 1956, an Andrea Guarneri of 1680 and a Nicolò Amati of 1675.
Over the decades, the Lucerne Festival Strings has retained its close association with the IMF Lucerne and Lucerne Festival. The ensemble functioned as an opera orchestra for the first time in 1976. Gunars Larsens has increasingly established himself as leader of the orchestra, having assumed the position at the age of twenty-five.
The question of a successor to Rudolf Baumgartner as artistic director became pressing in the 1990s. In Baumgartner's opinion, the most suitable candidate was the thirty-year-old German conductor and former violinist Achim Fiedler. Baumgartner had met him while adjudicating a conducting competition in Katowice in Poland in 1995, and invited him to the Lucerne Festival Strings in 1996. Fiedler conducted his first concert with the Lucerne Festival Strings in Ettiswil, a community in the canton of Lucerne, on May 19, 1996. His collaboration with the ensemble increased steadily over the next two years and in 1998 he officially assumed artistic direction. Rudolf Baumgartner conducted the Festival Strings for the last time on November 20, 1999; he died unexpectedly at his second home in Tuscany in March 2002.
Up to that point, the direction of the Lucerne Festival Strings had been in the hands of the artistic director alone, with secretarial assistance. Mia Niederöst led the secretarial office with great skill for decades. When Achim Fiedler was appointed, the business side was revised, and Samuel Steinemann became the first full time managing director in 2000. The number of concerts climbed rapidly. In addition, the Lucerne KKL, the exemplary new culture and convention complex which opened its doors in 2000, instituted a Lucerne Festival Strings concert series in 2003, and three concerts have taken place in the 1,840-seat main concert hall each season since then.
Soon after the millennium, at about the time that the new Munich label OEHMS CLASSICS was established, Fiedler began to record more with the Lucerne Festival Strings, starting with the 3-CD «Dialogue» series that set out to compare and contrast Johann Sebastian Bach's works with those of Arthur Honegger, Steve Reich and John Adams, and Franz Schubert with Anton Webern. 2006 saw the Sony Classical release of keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach featuring Martin Stadtfeld as soloist; in 2007 it received the ECHO Klassik, the prestigious German industry prize. Long planned, the fiftieth birthday of the Lucerne Festival Strings was celebrated in a special season of concerts, which featured guests like the violinist Maxim Vengerov and the clown Dimitri.
Hans-Christoph Mauruschat succeeded Samuel Steinemann as managing director in 2009. A new artistic director followed in 2012: Daniel Dodds. As in its early years, the leader of the ensemble is also its artistic director. Ensemble policy is much more flexible now, so that in the spring of 2013 the orchestra undertook a major tour of Germany in which symphonic repertoire was presented for the first time. The starting point of the increased forces is the series of master courses in conducting led by Bernard Haitink that forms part of the annual «LUCERNE FESTIVAL at Easter». At the special request of Bernard Haitink, the Lucerne Festival Strings were entrusted with symphonies by Beethoven and works for large symphonic forces by Debussy, Ravel and Bartók. A group of permanent guest artists joins the core of strings to form a large chamber orchestra or a symphony orchestra, according to requirements.
In addition to its tours all over the world, the Lucerne Festival Strings continues to appear regularly as a traditional string or chamber orchestra at the Lucerne Festival, where the most recent guest artists have been Hélène Grimaud, Daniel Hope and Angela Hewitt.
¹ Quoted from: Fritz Schaub: Festival Strings Lucerne 1956-1986, a commemorative publication by the Lucerne Festival Strings in connection with the International Festival of Lucerne
² Extract from minute no. 1056 of the Lucerne Canton governing council of May 6, 1986