The Magic Moutain, or A Long Post About Verbier

I’m back from the Verbier Festival, where I’ve been basking in mountain sunshine, pine-filled Alpine air and inspirational music-making from morning to night. Yesterday I spent two hours writing a long, ecstatic diary blogpost about it. Then I pressed the wrong button and lost the lot. This one will therefore be a little shorter and possibly less ecstatic (especially after the rude awakening I experienced at Covent Garden last night, but that’s another story), but I’ll put in some pictures this time…

The Verbier Festival’s chief raison d’etre is to bring together great musicians who haven’t necessarily played chamber music with one another before; there’s a flourishing Academy for young musicians at which the festival artists give masterclasses, an amateur chamber music week and an orchestra of youngsters that has survived by the skin of its teeth after being dropped from a great height by the embattled UBS. Concerts take place in the Salle Medran, actually an outsized tent, and further concerts in a modern church up the hill. In the village you wander the main drag, bump into people, take time for coffee; if you’re a festival participant you get to go free up the mountain by cable car.

With so many impressions jostling for space, the place acquires vast intensity, each emotion and experienced heightened by the mountain atmosphere until you feel you’re living an extraordinary dream – the qualifying point being that you have to watch what you eat because a bowl of soup in this town can cost CHF20. And it is easy, way too easy, to eat too much cheese.

There’s a heck of a lot of money around, and few signs of recession other than the sponsorship (but even that is holding up bar UBS and the orchestra; my press pass was suspended on a strap plastered with the word ROLEX). The private chalet parties to which artists are invited after the concerts have to be seen to be believed – each is like a lavish wedding reception. Nevertheless, the Verbier audience flocks in from far and wide, and it is hungry. Every event I attended was full or nearly so – concert, masterclass, classic or contemporary.

I hadn’t associated contemporary music with Verbier before, but was delighted to see thrilling audience responses to both Rodion Shchedrin, who was there with his prima ballerina assoluta wife Maya Plisteskaya, and Lera Auerbach, a prolific 30-something Russian-American composer-pianist, poet and artist, who impressed me with her playing and pieces alike. She has an individual voice, contemporary yet with roots and references in the past, making for excellent, interesting, often moving listening.

Another contemporary high point was hearing the astonishing cellist Sol Gabetta (Argentinian, aged about 27, humungous talent) playing a solo work by Peteris Vasks that carried us into a breathtaking soundworld that got under my skin and is still haunting me. I want to hear more of his music PDQ.

Verbier Festival, July 09 023

(l to r, Maya Plisetskaya, festival director Martin Engstroem, Rodion Shchedrin, muggins)

As for masterclasses, I ran into my old friend David Dolan, whose method of teaching classical improvisation is going global. He uses improvisation not only as an end in itself eg improvising a cadenza in a Mozart concerto, but also as a tool to enhance interpretation. Essentially it’s a way of reconnecting musicians with the deep-seated musical flow inside them which is so often squashed or destroyed by ferocious teachers, the demands of note-perfection for competitions, and our general tendency to focus on superficial details rather than the deep underlying structure of a work. In a way it’s Schenker and Schnabel by stealth: students are encouraged to reduce the underlying harmonies of the work to their essentials, to establish the sense of direction and then, having found the core components of the piece, to invent new melodies or embellishments around those. It’s powerful. I tried it myself years ago and did all I could, as editor of the late lamented Classical Piano, to encourage it – because everyone starts off thinking they can’t improvise, yet when they realise they can, and understand how blocked they had become, there are often tears. David had some intriguing stories about visiting certain very ambitious and goal-oriented institutions…

An overwhelming discovery was the teaching and conducting of Gabor Takacs-Nagy, formerly the leader of the Takacs Quartet – an inspirational Hungarian violinist who after a crisis point has reinvented himself and become a kind of guru. He’s devoted to constructive, encouraging teaching which is no less rigorous for being positive; with his brilliant, intent gaze and a sort of lit-from-within quality when he talks about music he loves, choosing marvellous and often quirky images to describe it, he draws out the best in students and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, of which he’s principal conductor. Their performance of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro blazed with such red-hot passion that I nearly fell off the mountain. He is like the sun, moon and stars; when he arrives, it’s as if all the lights go on. I interviewed him about chamber music coaching for The Strad… and he taught me how to say BARTÓKBELA with the correct Hungarian pronunciation.

Here he is at last year’s festival conducting the VFCO in part of the Siegfried Idyll:

A plethora of pianists began with Kissin in some extremely beautiful Chopin, which started 20 minutes after I hit town on Sunday night. It had taken me about 15 of those minutes to find my apartment, since the numbering system in the block was a little like something out of Harry Potter – as if everyone had simply picked a number they liked and stuck it on their door – and I was so flustered at my last-minute arrival that throughout the first movement I thought I was listening to the First Concerto…then wondered why he was playing the slow movement of the Second.

It was the pianists who stole the sartorial show, especially the shoe department. Yuja Wang wore strappy gold sandals with shining golden stilettos that were almost taller than she is. Jean-Yves Thibaudet delivered a glittering Turangalila solo piano part sporting equally glittering snakeskin footwear – that fellow can play, and wear, anything… But the prize has to go to Angela Hewitt’s ruby slippers: sparkling red jobs with heels that looked 8 inches high. If she’d tapped them together they’d have taken her home. She turned up at the last minute to replace Helene Grimaud. We asked festival director Martin Engstroem how on earth he had drafted in such a star at such short notice. The response? “I phoned her.” Read her own account of her visit at her website here. (By the way, her comments about behind the scenes stuff were echoed by a number of musicians…)

New talents to discover had Sol Gabetta as front runner – I can’t wait to hear her again – and an impressive young violist from New York, David Aaron Carpenter, who has just made his debut disc (the Elgar Cello Concerto in viola version by Lionel Tertis, on Ondine) and proved a superb chamber music player, the glue and the engine at the same time for every group I saw him in. Apparently he’s a protégé of Christoph Eschenbach.

And old friends, even young old friends, resurfaced everywhere – notably two of my favourite pianists, the inimitable Stephen Kovacevich, who’s planning a big 70th birthday shebang at the Wigmore Hall next year, and the adorable Simon Trpceski who turns all of 30 this year and has exciting stuff in the pipeline. The nature of the Verbier Chance Encounter resulted in a lovely lunch with Stephen K and David Dolan, entirely accidental – in London it would take 4 months to arrange such a thing.

Verbier Festival, July 09 032

There were little-known Mendelssohn pieces to enjoy – wow, am I glad that my old uni duo partner and I never fulfilled our dream of unearthing the Concerto for Violin and Piano, whizzed through by Josh Bell and Thibaudet, with Gabor conducting. I hadn’t heard so many notes in one piece since Yuja Wang & co played the Sextet for piano, violin, two violas, cello and double bass earlier that morning. I adore old Felix, but amid the fast-finger sector he had it and he flaunted it.  

I ended my trip sitting in the sun outside the concert tent on Thursday morning listening to Kissin, Bell and Maisky within rehearsing the Mendelssohn D minor Trio. If it sounds like paradise, that’s probably because it is.

Verbier Festival, July 09 051

Best of all: you can see many of the festival concerts LIVE online courtesy of Medici TV. After the performances, they are available to view free of charge until 30 September. Catch the very silly but very fun Nuit des pianistes, the recital by Stephen K, a concert by Thomas Quasthoff, Bryn Terfel in what we’re told is his last-ever Don Giovanni. And much, much more…

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