A truly mountainous event
Jeremy Pound enjoys a long weekend at the Verbier Festival
‘Expect the unexpected’ should perhaps be the slogan of the Verbier Festival. Examples? In just three days at this lavishly presented event in the Swiss Alps, I see conductor Valery Gergiev playing the piano, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff conducting, and soprano Angela Gheorghiu – she of operatic Puccini, Verdi and Donizetti opera greatness – indulging in a John Dowland song or two, accompanied by a lone guitar.
Founded in 1994, this is the 22nd Verbier Festival. For one so young, it has already made its impressive stamp on the music world. One of the most anticipated events of the summer calendar, it never fails to persuade the biggest names up into the mountains where they join similarly lofty peers in engagements ranging from large-scale concerts down to lower-key chamber recitals and masterclasses with bright young things.
Verbier is not loved by all. Four years ago, violinist Gidon Kremer publicly distanced himself from the festival, telling founder and director Martin Engstroem that ‘I simply don’t have enough energy to support gatherings and collaborations on highly exposed stages with “rising” or approved stars of today’s music business for the sake of ovations and name-dropping’. And yet, for every absent Gidon Kremer, there are countless others who return year after year. ‘Verbier gives me the chance to perform chamber music recitals, a chance I don’t often get elsewhere,’ pianist Daniil Trifonov tells me. ‘And not just chamber music, but also unusual repertoire in chamber music, such as Schumann’s Andante and Variations for two pianos, two cellos and horn which I’ve played in this year. Plus, when I’m not practising for my own concerts, I also try to go and listen to others playing.’
Trifonov is the first musician I hear during my visit, as one third of the solo trio in Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos, K242 at the Salle des Combins – alongside him at the keyboards are Denis Matsuev and Valery Gergiev (left to right, above). ‘What is Gergiev like as a pianist?’ a friend later asks me. Hard to tell, really – much of the time, the three pianos in are playing in unison, and there’s little of the dialogue that you get between the soloists in the same composer’s Concerto for Two Pianos. What I can say for certain, though, is that when Gergiev is back in more familiar guise – with the baton – he leads the young, multi-national players of the Verbier Festival Orchestra in a raw, earthy and deeply moving performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony.
The next day, in the more intimate venue of the Eglise, I head for an afternoon recital given by pianist Lera Auerbach. A couple of Rachmaninov Etude-Tableaux plus Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition make up the programme, but this being Verbier, there’s a little twist – the Musorgsky is preceded by an illustrated guide to the music, given by Auerbach herself sitting at the piano. This is evidently not everyone’s cup of tea, and I notice a certain amount of fidgeting around me, but I find it fascinating. And her performance of Pictures itself – edgy, risk-taking and with one or two of Auerbach’s own little additions to the score – goes down a treat.
And then, in the evening, comes something of a major Verbier event – namely, the conducting debut of recently retired bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Evidently someone who likes a challenge, Quasthoff has decided that his first outing with the baton should not be a programme of, say, relatively light and simple orchestral works, but instead a three-hour choral masterpiece, complete with soloists, double choir and double orchestra, and a third children’s choir thrown in for good measure. We’re talking Bach’s St Matthew Passion, no less.
Quasthoff’s task is not helped by a large storm that literally thunders around us as Bach’s opening chorus sets out on its portentous path – the noise of the rain hammering down on the roof of the Salle des Combins merely adds to the singers’ challenge of making themselves heard in an acoustic that is not hugely friendly to performers at the best of times. However, as the rain abates, the performance itself gathers a head of steam, aided no end by a compelling Evangelist in tenor Mark Padmore (above). Quasthoff’s tempos are nicely brisk, though he is not afraid to linger and revel in the drama when the narrative demands it. And, while the ensemble between singers and players of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra occasionally goes a little awry, the overall effect is mightily effective. It certainly feels like a significant occasion.
After emotional highs and lows of the Pathétique and St Matthew Passion, not to mention a hearty afternoon hike up a mountain, I decide that something a little lighter and gentler is needed. And so, on Saturday, my final Verbier outing is to hear Angela Gheorghiu in recital with guitarist Milos Karadaglic at the Eglise (below). As well a couple of Dowland songs to start us off, they treat the audience to songs from Spain and South America and from their own countries of Romania and Montenegro, plus the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen. Appearing on stage for the first time together, they make a flirtatious, fun and extremely charming pair, and she is evidently having a whale of a time, as are we in the audience.
Not everyone is concentrating, though. Midway through a Villa-Lobos song, I become aware of the light from a mobile phone shining obnoxiously to my left. Looking round with the proverbial daggers at the ready, I see that the culprit is a nun – in her late 70s at least – who has received and is reading a text message. The Lord works in mysterious ways indeed, particularly in Verbier…
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