sat 20/07/2024

theartsdesk in Verbier: A Cable Car Named Inspire | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Verbier: A Cable Car Named Inspire

theartsdesk in Verbier: A Cable Car Named Inspire

A paradise for classical music and Alpine flowers where Bryn Terfel, Martha Argerich and Stephen Kovacevich let their hair down

The hills are alive with the sound of music: it's not a cliché hereImages © I Brown

I’m standing with my feet on peaks and my head in clouds, looking down steep Alps at the tiny chocolate-brown chalets of little Verbier way below on the green slopes. It’s ravishing up here on the top of Fontanet, and I tarry, gloating over the botanical riches around me of milky-blue gentians, royal-blue harebells, glistening edelweiss, dark little orchids and garnet-bright sedum, watching the trickling water of a brook, and replaying last night’s music in my head.

And if you move quick you can do this yourself before next Sunday.

There’s an Easyjet to Geneva several times a day, a train ride along the length of Lac Léman, a longish mountain drive (or if you get the timing right, a 10-minute cable car ride) up the almost vertical flanks of Les Ruinettes to a small Swiss town, where the piano arpeggio practice threading through the streets is likelier to be coming from Martha Argerich or Stephen Kovacevich than from a local child, and the splendid baritonal vocalises are probably either Matthias Goerne, Thomas Quasthoff or Bryn Terfel preparing tomorrow’s recital.

Sadly I’ve had to leave too soon for violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist Evgeny Kissin and conductor Valery Gergiev next week. Which is typical. For this is the annual Verbier Festival, where in the Swiss Alps each July a lustrous social and musical gathering takes place between some of the most famous musicians on the planet, stopping off for a breather on their global orbits. Their backing group is a crème de la crème of superbright young talents, and this meeting of present and future is held in the presence of canny members of the public who know how to grab a memorable summer break.

I'm used to Edinburgh, with its multi-arts visitors and addictively historic old city, but Verbier is altogether both smaller and larger, both more modest and yet more significant to its niche. Sponsored by Rolex, and studded with classical stars, the Verbier Festival holds out the expectation of being as smooth, international and luxurious an experience as that over-celebbed watch brand. Yet it is only a mountain village, of rather clichéd Alpine prettiness, the wooden chalets decorated with flower baskets exactly as if there were a tinkling musical box inside the roof and a cow behind going "moo".

In this modest place, the shops obviously signal that this place identifies itself first and foremost as a winter ski resort, but in the streets I bump into youths carrying not skis but cellos, in the concert halls I’m squeezing onto pews alongside the mighty Bryn Terfel or the peachy mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager. It is a rather fantastical unreality of many kinds.


Pictured above, the Salle des Combins with the persistently snow-capped Combins range behind

If I'd been expecting of Verbier a suave international classical festival, I was pleasantly surprised by its unpretentious seriousness. It has - as Bryn Terfel would tell me later - a “family” feeling, an informality full of unexpected things, of straightforward, if brief, imparting of wisdom and insights between generations of musicians, of happy serendipities as well as calamitous bits of “festivalitis” where the informality may be taken just a bit too far.

You need stamina. I took in seven events in three and a half days, ranging from the Béjart Ballet visiting from just down the lake in Lausanne with the late Maurice Béjart’s impressive Sixties-era Rite of Spring, through piano recitals, a masterclass with Stephen Kovacevich and two orchestral and choral concerts, to a recital by Bryn Terfel and his fellow Welshman, Llyr Williams.

It hadn’t been easy to decide what to see. Everyday life during the festival's 17 days is full of agonising dilemmas. They say there are almost 60 concerts this year, and while Swiss life can be expensive, you can get into the concerts for around £30. What a wrench it was last Tuesday evening to choose between a performance of Rachmaninov and Strauss with the Verbier Festival Orchestra and a recital by the great Lieder singer Matthias Goerne (I think I made the wrong choice). What a pain it will be next Friday for those of you who are there to decide between all the violinists: Joshua Bell and Vadim Repin in the Salle des Combins and Leonidas Kavakos in the Église.

The hedonistic let's-play-a-trio mood reminds everyone that music is above all written to revivify listeners and players, not constrain them

I can see at least one reason why all these jetsetting musicians keep going back there, apart from the scenery, informality and pristine mountain air. Since the Verbier Festival was launched in 1994, the extraordinary pianist Martha Argerich has been meeting her former husbands regularly there every summer, the conductor Charles Dutoit and the pianist Stephen Kovacevich, as well as chamber music like-minds such as Gidon Kremer and Mischa Maisky. The atmosphere they’re generating is one of enabling and fostering surprises, with each other in classical jam sessions, and with the youngsters of great talent who are selected to take part with them. Musical careers are now so planned, the repertoire tending to be so categorised for marketing, that the hedonistic let's-play-a-trio mood reminds everyone that music is above all written to revivify listeners and players, not constrain them.

Watch Argerich play Shostakovich with Joshua Bell, Henning Kraggerud, Yuri Bashmet and Mischa Maisky in Verbier 2008

What makes Verbier an extra attraction for the festival holiday-maker choosing whether to go to Edinburgh, Lucerne, Salzburg or Bayreuth, say, is that this parallel focus on youth gives an ordinary person such an insight into the secrets of musical greatness. Every morning there are masterclasses with, this year, the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa or Anne-Sophie Mutter, truly eye-opening for the punter as well as for the talented young participant.

Verbier_Kovacevich_cropAs a member of the public I could wander in free to watch one of Stephen Kovacevich’s breakfast sessions (pictured right) coaching a promising Dutch lad in Rachmaninov and an already remarkable young American in Beethoven, Drew Petersen. I pinched myself with delight. Here was the joy of hearing one of my idols when I was a piano student wryly and acutely showing something in the left hand about dark colours, or talking about “good guys and bad guys” to stop a young pianist developing a habit of predictability in his phrasing.

Two festival orchestras assembled in intensive sessions at Verbier's Academy harvest the cream of international young instrumentalists, and they’re good. At the concerts I heard this week they played Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben with eager romanticism under Neeme Järvi one night, and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with vibratoless clarity under Gábor Takácz-Nagy the next. In a pub I heard young German and American string players comparing bowings for Dutilleux (next Saturday’s rep under Gergiev) - later I found myself discussing the Stolyarsky violin school of Odessa with a lad from Ukraine.

Between concerts, the cable car will whizz you up to the peaks in 20 minutes, with your mountain bike as well, if you like

Clearly, this is a nerd’s Paradise, a divinely inspiring immersion for anyone who loves music let alone the Alpines section in their local garden centre. Between concerts, the cable car will whizz you up to the peaks in 20 minutes, with your hired mountain bike as well, if you like, and you can either drift through the clouds and gentians on foot or storm down the slope among the big brown cows on your wheels.

That’s the consumer experience, but it’s apparently an equally delightful change of life for the performers. They trust Verbier’s director Martin T:son Engstroem so much that they accept the curveballs he throws at them.

The great Welsh singer Bryn Terfel, for instance, was paired up this year with a compatriot, Llyr Williams - as Terfel told the audience at their recital on Wednesday, there’d never been two Welshmen at Verbier before. And after the serious Schubert and Schumann, he proceeded to sing first “Ar hyd y nos” and then a silly song about a green-eyed dragon that entailed ferocious dragony growls and deafening wolf-whistles. Suddenly, the very well-heeled and veteran Swiss audience started wolf-whistling back.

Verbier_Bryn_TerfelI asked Terfel afterwards about the appeal of Verbier. He’d made us all laugh so much in the recital - which we’d expected from the artist of Bad Boys - but he’d also reminded us with some cavernous bass notes of his present frequency appearing worldwide in Wagner’s epic bass-baritone roles. Terfel close up as a performer is truly extraordinary: a sheer entertainer of such intelligent wit and perfect handling of his audience, yet you don’t doubt for a second that this is the product of exceptionally hard work and not a drop of “festivalitis”.

Talking of which - a regular topic for critics of festivals - many people had been disappointed by Kirchschlager’s sloppiness in the Dido and Aeneas, hardly a word accurate despite reading it from a book, ducking the climactic notes of Dido’s final “Remember me”s, and blemishing the well-polished work of the Verbier chorus and orchestra and other soloists. Unpreparedness, cancellations and swaps tend to be frequent (Terfel filled in for Quasthoff on Thursday night) but so too are eclectic programmes not to be found in the Wigmore Hall. Terfel’s recital ranged improbably from Schubert to “Home on the Range”.

In Verbier, he told me backstage later, “It’s a totally different feeling, it’s very comfortable and family-oriented, so in a way the pressure’s off. The grand opera debuts are tinged with many different hurdles, things you’ve worked for six weeks to try not to encounter. So a bit of adrenalin rush is needed for performing, I think. This festival is all about collaboration. Tonight was the first time I’ve worked with Llyr, so that had its moments...”

Llyr Williams is an increasingly well-known name on the piano circuit - he is doing a complete Beethoven sonata cycle in Edinburgh's Fringe Festival next month. I'd listened to his recital and noted how clear and vigorously accurate his Beethoven was, yet how somehow artificially emotive I’d found his Liszt. As a colleague remarked to me, Beethoven-playing as clean as this is refreshing and rare to find. But he is evidently an extremely shy man, and he and Terfel made a very unlikely couple of personalities, united at Verbier by the fact of being Welsh, it seemed.

“We hadn’t really met," explained Terfel. "We met in London a while ago, but I’ve been busy, and we had a session today, and I went to his recital this afternoon. But actually I was thinking during the concert tonight, why haven’t we worked together before? I usually work with Malcolm Martineau for recitals 90 per cent of the time, but it’s nice to have the 10 per cent different. Llyr is somewhat of a closed person in everyday terms but in performance he plays for people, and when he’s on the keyboard he becomes a completely different personality. He caught me in some of my mistakes in the concert - he breathed with me, he has a wonderful lot of colours, and great sounds coming out of that piano, even on a half-lid.”

I wondered if singing in French and German to a French- and German-speaking audience was daunting. "Yes," Terfel said, “but it is anywhere, in whatever language. Even if I’m singing my own mother tongue you can forget your words.”

Terfel is a farmer's son, who developed his character-singing by trying to get as much of a rise as possible out of his father's collies

Although now 45, Terfel continues to work closely with his old mentor from his Guildhall college training 27 years ago, Rudolf Piernay. “He’s my final coaching polisher, he does the crossing of the Ts and dotting of Is. He has a good pair of ears, and an honest pair of ears.” Piernay helped Terfel finesse the ruminative Schubert and Schumann songs for this recital ("Liebesbotschaft" and "Auf dem Wasser zu singen", "Liederkreis"), a musical niche much more associated with other singers at Verbier this year, such as Goerne and Quasthoff.

Terfel is aiming to step more often onto this competitive turf. “Lieder is something I’ve been interested in working on, and maybe in the next 10 years I’ll do a bit more of it,” he said. “I think it’s a great technical change from the operatic stage to the intimacy of a Lieder abend.”

He plans, he told me, to do Schubert’s Winterreise for the first time: “I have this idea of making it slightly different - maybe having a visual quality, maybe in an interesting theatre that has those visual qualities around you, interesting places like the Frick Gallery in New York, or the British Museum.” He also intends to tick off the final Wagner role of the Wanderer in Siegfried this autumn at the Metropolitan Opera, then before long Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin's Prince Igor. He reckons his Russian is good, he says, helped by being Welsh.

Still, from Boris to Schubert - it’s an astounding variety of delivery, responsiveness, colour that Terfel is demanding of himself. He finished his concert with tales of a Welsh Broadway and opera star of the Thirties, John Charles Thomas, who would give an encore after Aida of "Home on the Range", inspired by his love of his chickens and pigs on his farm. Terfel is a farmer's son, who developed his taste for character in singing by trying to get as much of a rise as possible out of his father's collies. If only that were all it took to be a great and inimitable star, just a few pigs and dogs about the place.

Watch Bryn Terfel sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might as Well be Spring"

Range was something that I swiftly homed in on in the several pianists I heard. Williams’s clean-boned Beethoven was all head, you might say. Khatia Buniatishvili’s Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto (with Järvi) displayed all heart, a self-absorbed lack of involvement with the orchestral dialogue, and a touch that ranged from tinkling softness to pummelling loudness, without truly questing attack or textural variation. I was rather disappointed, after all her PR.

louis_schwizgebel-wang_mugshotThe Stephen Kovacevich masterclass would have tuned anyone’s ears to these sophisticated matters, and Lars Vogt delivered a delightfully flavoured Mozart D major concerto K451 on Tuesday in the first half of the dodgy Dido event.

But what I enjoyed most was the happening upon a new bloom, the sort of thing that is very Verbier. One afternoon at the clipped white modern Église appeared a 23-year-old Swiss pianist named Louis Schwizgebel-Wang (pictured right), who made an hour and a quarter of Liszt flee by with exquisite fairytales of pianism, from the sombre questions of Vallée d’Oberman to some breathtakingly virtuosic playing of Paganini studies.

To make a career as a musician is a long-term act of intelligent will and curiosity about music-making, as Terfel embodies. At the moment, perhaps, the beauteous and glamorous Buniatishvili, the same age as Schwizgebel-Wang, has a huge marketing advantage, but in 20 years I think that, like Kovacevich and Argerich, it is Schwizgebel-Wang who is more likely to be the master of his instrument opening ears to the intimate secrets of great music up in the mountains of Verbier. Catch him when he plays in Britain this autumn with his fellow Swiss cellist, Lionel Cottet, and, I'd bet, in a lot of high places as a soloist before long.

If I'd been expecting of Verbier a suave international classical festival, I was pleasantly surprised by its unpretentious seriousness

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