wed 25/11/2020

theartsdesk at the Verbier Festival 2016 | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Verbier Festival 2016

theartsdesk at the Verbier Festival 2016

One-off hits and misses: what a festival's all about

Kyung-Wha Chung: rolling back the years to open the 2016 Verbier Festival© Aline Paley / Verbier Festival

Idyllic setting, star-rated musicians, the sense of an occasion. Verbier so wholly fulfils the clichés of an international music festival that to the cynical it can seem complacent or arrogant in doing so. To the uninitiated – and this was my first visit to the Monaco of the Mountains – there is more than a sprinkling of magic about the sheer implausibility of the place.

Idyllic setting, star-rated musicians, the sense of an occasion. Verbier so wholly fulfils the clichés of an international music festival that to the cynical it can seem complacent or arrogant in doing so. To the uninitiated – and this was my first visit to the Monaco of the Mountains – there is more than a sprinkling of magic about the sheer implausibility of the place. Perched 1500m up, yet nestling within a circle of Alpine peaks topped by Mont Fort, a town of hardly more than four main streets draws many of the world’s finest performers for three weeks of almost non-stop music-making.

The sheer variety of that activity on offer defies those clichés even as the suede loafers and silk blouses of its audience invite them – though again, my impressions were happily coloured by an unusually consistent spell of warm weather. "Bring an umbrella" was the first piece of advice received from several Verbier veterans. During my four days it was needed only once, on the way to the festival’s second-evening concert at the Salle des Combins: an effective replacement for the festival’s old big tent, knocked up each year at the opposite end of town. Large enough to stage Carmen two nights later, sufficiently compact to be packed away each year and stored in a Dutch warehouse, the hall is a noisy place in an Alpine thunderstorm, and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra’s opening concert was delayed by a quarter of an hour.

For three-quarters of an hour, it really did feel like being inside Mozart’s head

The wait was worth it. Once the worst of the drumming rain ceased, Gabor Takacs-Nágy conducted accounts of Mozart’s first and last symphonies with something new to say in each bar. The VFCO musicians are graduates from the festival’s main orchestra, all around their late twenties. Their schedule is genuinely arduous: rehearse two days, perform the third, repeat five times. That they’ve done so many times with this genial, Hungarian taskmaster was evident from the puppyish enthusiasm with which they sprang to fulfil his commands, celebrating the Renaissance individual in Mozart’s portmanteau of symphonic gestures and always drawing out the C-D-F-E motif which he had apparently come up with as a seven-year-old, one rainy day in London, and which then crowned the "Jupiter" Symphony’s festival of counterpoint. For three-quarters of an hour, it really did feel like being inside Mozart’s head, as amazed, baffled and delighted at the profusion of ideas as one might be when leafing through the festival programme.

The second half’s C minor Mass showed the other side of a festival concert coin: a touch stiff and routine, compromised by the aesthetic contrast between Takacs-Nagy’s driven, period-lite approach and the large, New-York-based MasterVoices, who were uneasily squeezed into the back of the performing box of the Salle des Combins stage.

Why Verbier? Not for nothing did the festival’s founder and director, Martin T:Son Engstroem, work in a previous professional life as the head of artists and repertoire at Deutsche Grammophon. The major artists appearing here have all been contracted to one of the major classical labels. In the case of the Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung, for 20 years at Decca before a hand injury derailed her career for the best part of the last decade. Appearances at Verbier were a high-profile staging post on her comeback tour. As well as the Brahms Concerto in the festival’s opening concert, she gave a sonata recital in the coolly modernist concrete space of the town church which functions as the other main venue.

The elusive intricacies of Fauré’s First Sonata were as yet sketchy under Chung’s fingers, but she has always had a way with the steel-tipped violin writing of Prokofiev. What the break from performing has stripped of security in her upper register it has bestowed a deeper palette of tone-colours on the G and D strings. Wind whistling through a graveyard, the composer said of the scales which open and close his First Sonata. On this sunny Sunday morning the grave gaped open and the end-times seemed appallingly near at hand. After the interval Chung and Kevin Kenner (pictured above, by Aline Paley) gave the evergreen Franck Sonata in performance which brought back to life the classic, muscular grip and throaty baritonal register of the Ivan Galamian school.

The church hosts the kind of concerts which would draw a full house to the Wigmore Hall. The audience in Verbier was lower in number, with prices steep even for a Swiss public, but significantly boosted, I dare say, by participants in the Festival Academy’s classes up the road. After an empty piano duet of Shchedrin (is there any other kind?) to open the evening concert, they cheered their friends, colleagues and teachers onto the stage for a rare performance of the Second Piano Quartet by Georges Enescu. This is a big piece, with post-Romantic climaxes that rumble and thunder for page after page, sustained by some magic of harmonic timing, and it drew out a grandly assertive, not altogether focused performance from an ad hoc line-up effectively led by Lawrence Power on viola.

He and the cellist Raphaël Merlin returned for Fauré’s Second Piano Quartet, within a more smoothly integrated ensemble led by violinist Benjamin Beilman. This took off in a raptly sustained slow movement that could act as a corrective for those who associate the composer with a brand of droopy consolation (it was filmed, like many of the festival’s concerts, for Medici TV). The concert as a whole illustrated the perils and pleasures of getting together good musicians at short notice in a festival setting and outside the comfort zone of familiar colleagues or repertoire.

To a more extreme degree, so did my final, most memorable concert in Verbier, which paired Matthias Goerne and Yuja Wang (pictured above, by Nicolas Brodard) in Die schöne Magelone. How would Brahms’s concert-length song-cycle of courtly love fare between a pianistic mistress of Bartókian Allegro barbaro and the Wozzeck of our time? With predictably unpredictable results. Goerne was in magnificent voice, unconstrained by any notions of intimacy that might arise from the performing space or the nature of the work, and Wang, quite wisely, chose not to compete. Even behind a music stand, propped in the lee of the piano, sometimes unsure when the interlinking narrations from Caroline De Bon would end, the baritone imposed himself upon all. During the first song an audience member nearby committed some infraction, invisible to me; Goerne shot her a glare and it’s a wonder she wasn’t reduced to ashes on the spot.

No Winterreise this, but Goerne’s men in song tend to live on the edge, just a bad night away from insanity. Yet to smile and fall under the spell is almost inevitable when he teases the line of a love song, bends and banters it out of shape so that love itself takes on the symptoms of a consuming sickness. Once the crisis of separation arrived, so did the full panoply of vocal psychodrama, doubtless out of scale to anything Brahms or the poet Tieck could have envisaged, unsettling and unrepeatable. It is, surely, for such occasions that festivals live.

Once the crisis of separation arrived, so did the full panoply of vocal psychodrama

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