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Jessica Duchen
Saturday 31st July 2010
JDCMB TFA III
Outside Salle des Combins

(Above: outside the Salle des Combins last night)

Saturday 10am. A perfect morning in the mountains, the moon and sun out together and not a cloud in sight. The town is walking its dogs. Verbier is extremely doggy. Today I've met two gorgeous St Bernards, a Newfoundland (looks like a black bear) and a white Labrador puppy, and it's only 10 o'clock.

There's a buzz in town: the singing students' rendition of La Bohème in the church this afternoon has become the hottest ticket in town and is already sold out. It's being conducted by a 17-year-old Venezuelan whizz-kid, a Dudamel lookalike with plenty of curls and lashings of charisma. His name is Ilyich Rivas: remember it. The festival has presented him with a special award. And he already has the same agent as Vladimir Jurowski.

Not many people seem to mind too much (well, not *too* many) that Rolando Villazon and Hélène Grimaud have cancelled their recital tonight. I hadn't really expected it to happen in any case and have always planned to attend the chamber music concert tonight instead. Now they've drafted in the winners of the Operalia Competition, so maybe I'll be missing something amazing...

Poor Rolando has been cancelling rather a lot, notwithstanding the occasional gig to launch his new Mexican CD. I've been wondering if his career is over, but word on the ground has it that he has been singing elsewhere in the past week. As for Grimaud, she has been pulling out of quite a number of concerts. She has never been my favourite pianist, admittedly, but she's a significant presence on the scene nonetheless and has countless fans - it's sad if her health is letting her down (she cancelled her concert yesterday ‘for health reasons' and something similar happened last Verbier).

When I think of the lifestyle that international concert artists lead, with the constant performance stress, travel schedules, jet lag, food issues (when do you eat, and what?) and so forth, it's a wonder any of them are actually alive past the age of 40. Still, they should come here. The mountain air would do them good. It really is glorious. They ought to bottle it and make it available through plastic masks in emergencies at the Proms.

On the other hand, Dame Gwyneth is still singing past the age of 70 - so it's not impossible. If you ever saw that zany old film Hellzapoppin (it used to roll round on TV sometimes, but hasn't for a while - it's probably un-PC or something), you may remember a little man carrying a tree intended for delivery to a Mrs Jones. By the end he's flying around on a magic carpet shouting ‘Mrs Jones! Mrs Jones!' Well, right now that's me. From Laurel & Hardy to Hellzapoppin in 36 hours...

The Salle des Combins, the new concert location, has shifted the whole emphasis of the festival in geographical terms. The old Salle de Madran was at the top of the town, close to the cable car. Now we take a free ‘navette' to a location slightly out of the way along the hillside. It's rather impressive when you arrive, however: the structure is indeed more solid than the old one, the seating more steeply raked (and more capacious) and certainly the sound quality had improved considerably (though I am spoilt, as press, handed a prime location near the front...). Outside you can quaff your drink and gaze at the sunset on the Alps. Pas mal, hein?

The concert began with an example of something that Verbier does better than most other places: a fiery, seat-of-the-pants chamber music performance by a group of individuals, all well known in their own rights, who had never got together before, and rehearsed for the first time 24 hours earlier. It was the Brahms Piano Quintet with Christian Zacharias (piano), Henning Kraggerud and Kirill Troussov (violins), Lawrence Power (viola) and Natalia Gutman (cello) - a combination of veterans and young stars who bounced and sparked and sometimes virtually improvised their responses to one another. Fascinating to hear this account after encountering the Ebene Quartet the same morning: the diametric opposite, so seamlessly polished and prepared, playing with one personality instead of a set of different ones in conversation. I have no preference of one type of music-making over the other: they both have their rewards and the joy is that so many different approaches are possible. Henning Kraggerud was, to me, possibly this pick of this particular bunch, persuasive and sweet-toned, unfailing in his musicality and emotional honesty. Lawrence Power was on fine form, as ever, and is to be congratulated on the recent birth of his first child.

But really this was Zacharias's evening, since he returned after the interval to conduct the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Haydn's Symphony No. 98. I hadn't encountered him in this role before, though have long admired his piano playing and generally had the impression that he deserved far more fame than has been his lot so far. Astonishing to see how different his conducting is from his playing: the latter controlled, unflappable and relatively undemonstrative, but the former highly physical - batonless and dancer-like with leans and twists and hand-flips drawing the orchestra into total involvement with Haydn's high spirits.

Haydn does enjoy his own jokes, and you can't blame him. Just when you thought the end of the last movement was approaching, a figure sprang out of the audience -a diminutive Japanese gentleman in a light suit with a flowing white mane and moustache, and an aura of je ne sais quoi that suggested likely stardom: Masaaki Suzuki, no less. He bounded onto the stage, raised the lid of the harpsichord at the back and for about a minute played an all-too-brief duet with the extremely gifted leader of the Verbier Festival Orchestra, Christoph Koncz - I'm told that he has played in the VFO for about five years and is now the principal second violin of the Vienna Philharmonic. A player of great personality, charm and exquisitely toned finesse.  I've already had an email from a friend who saw the concert on Medici TV and wrote to ask me about him.

They finished, the movement got back to its expected coda and Mr Suzuki returned to his audience seat with a smile and a shrug. He came back to play an encore - a few moments of harpsichord marvel that was so idiomatic and intense that it has done something most interesting to my ears, of which more in a moment. I am promised that he did not come to Verbier solely to play three minutes of Haydn. As the applause died away, the orchestra members hugged each other at length. It's the end of a beautiful summer. This orchestra has a bit of a name for romance - there have been Verbier marriages and, I understand, some Verbier babies too.

This morning I've taken in the first half of Nicholas Angelich's recital in the church: softly cushioned Bach-Busoni chorale prelude and a glittering, rather full-on Bach English Suite No.2. I am slightly going off metronomic Bach. Mr Suzuki, last night, played his few bars of harpsichord Haydn in a style that though rhythmically sprung was utterly different: there was much more at stake than evenness of touch and semiquaver, with agogic accents on the crucial harmonies and leanings on the appropriate moments of melody. One can't play a piano as if it were a harpsichord, but I wonder if this approach might enhance rather than detract from the much-vaunted dance rhythms that many musicians seem to regard as an immovable driving beat. Very modern, of course. That's what we have in popular ‘dance' music.

I slunk out before the Chopin and have settled on a bench on the church's terrace. Inside, he's in full Chopin flood mode, the Revolutionary Etude, following a very beautiful group of nocturnes in which his tone was notably of the highest quality even from here. I have to go. I have to try to catch someone before she starts her rehearsal. MRS JONES! MRS JONES!...

UPDATE, 5.10pm Tree delivered from flying carpet... but not with the desired outcome: JDCMB regrets that Mrs Jones is unfortunately not able to make herself available for the longed-for interview. That's her prerogative. It's nice to have shaken the hand of the first Brünnhilde I ever saw.

However, I've just emerged from one of the most astonishing afternoons I've ever spent in a music festival. I came here intending to hear a group of rather long-in-the-tooth singers, but it's the young ones, delivering a chamber version of La Bohème staged in about three days, who are the marvels here. Stay tuned and I will shortly introduce you to a group of future stars.

Bloody Puccini again: what a crafty old devil he was. He knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote those final pages. He wants to rip out your guts. And he does it, every time. I need to do some serious remedial work on my mascara.

 
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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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