Tag Archives: Verbier Festival 2017

The view from Mont Fort (3, 328 metres), photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


I am not surprised that so many  musicians return to the Verbier Festival year after year. The top soloists probably don’t get paid as much as they normally would get for a concert, but the real carrot is that they get to stay in a very comfortable chalet for a week, sometimes even two.  The south oriented terrace (at 1500 metres) that Verbier lies on offers magnificent views; on a clear day all the way to the Mont Blanc Massif. Soloists and conductors are also encouraged to bring their family. A soloist on tour leads quite a lonely existence and normally there is very little time for socialising.  But Verbier is not  like any ol’ festival.  The focus here is not only on the concerts for the general public. Another important aspect is the Academy (see previous blog) which nurtures young musicians. There are daily  masterclasses (open to the public) and a lot of music-making, some of it impromptu.

Verbier is one of the few festivals that gives young musicians  a chance to be on a stage with some of the world’s very best classical musicians. Festivalgoers can here also feel closer to the stars. Every day there is an opportunity to hear a world class musician perform in a very intimate setting.  This week you could have experienced Janine Jansen, Nikolai Lugansky or Joshua Bell perform in a modernish church  with seating for no more than 350 people.  Top soloists are also encouraged to form temporary quartets , quintets or sextets that,  if they were rock musicians, would be classified as ‘supergroups’. But it is not all strictly classical that is on offer. The bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff  visits with his trio presenting a programme consisting of jazz standards from the American songbook. Quasthoff has also been very busy giving master classes. The Chucho Valdés Quartet promises this Friday to turn the large Salle des Combins into a Cuban dance fest.

This year is the 24th edition of the festival and it is now a long established tradition that after every evening a different chalet owner welcomes the performers into his/her home after the concerts. These get- togethers, I am told, can be very fruitful and on top of that some of the premises are stunning. This kind of hospitality is another factor that makes the Verbier Festival so attractive for the performers.

We are now in the last week of the festival but ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings’. The seemingly endless stream of well-known artists continues until Sunday August 6. On Sunday opera stars of the future (some of them already professional)  get to perform Tchaikovsky’s opera  Eugen Onegin together with the Verbier Festival Junior Orchestra in front of a large audience.  This year there are quite a few Russian singers. The young Russian  Stanislav Kochanovsky conducts and he is already is in great demand by opera houses and symphony orchestras all over the world. That same evening the Festival’s final concert with the Verbier Festival Orchestra will be led by another Russian, Michael Pletnev.  We can look forward to Tchaikovsky’s symphony no.4 and his  violin concerto with Janine Jansen as soloist. Could it be that after this Slavic onslaught we will get an announcement about who will take over from Charles Dutoit as music director of the Verbier Festival Orchestra? After eight years Dutoit passes on the baton and if the rumours are to be believed Valery Gergiev  will take over the directorship.  I think he would  feel at home in Verbier; quite a few of his countrymen already own chalets in this very exclusive holiday resort.

Daniel Lozakovich (violin), Lahav Shani (conductor), Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra 2017, photo: Aline Paley

The incredibly talented young Swede Daniel Lozakovich performed Max Bruch’s first violin concerto on Tuesday 25 July. Daniel started playing  10 years ago, which means that he is still only 16 years old. He is currently the youngest artist signed to Deutsche Gramm-ophon, but since that deal was done a year ago no record has been announced. I think I know the reason why. Daniel produces a lovely warm sound with quite a lot of vibrato. His interpretation of the Bruch concerto was very warm-hearted, but there was a lack of spontaneity, contrast and also pace. This sounded like a warhorse not quite prepared for battle. I do hope this precocious talent is not pushed too early into playing things that he can’t quite master.

The Israeli conductor Lahav Shani (27) is also relatively young but musically surprisingly mature. He studied in Tel Aviv and Berlin and was later mentored by Daniel Barenboim. This was the first time I saw Shani in action and I immediately liked his rapport with the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. They responded well to his elaborate, but very expressive arm gestures in the Bruch and did even better in Schubert’s ‘Great’ No.9. Shani conducted without a score, just like Barenboim likes to do, and the two screens on each side of the stage gave the audience a closer and frontal view of the kinship between the conductor and the musicians. Expect to see much more of this young man who is also a fine pianist. In 2018 Lahav Shani becomes the chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, a position Valery Gergiev held between 1995-2008.

Francesco Piemontesi at the Verbier Festival 2017, photo:Aline Paley

In the Église I saw The Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (34) who has been on the radar of music critics ever since he was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. He is always praised for “intellectual rigour”. If that means that he isn’t very showy I would agree. His rendition of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K330 was a little bit too crisp for my liking. But when he tackled Liszt’s Saint Français de Paule marchant sur les flots he didn’t hold back and showed that he can do flashy as well. Piemontesi is a very apt Schubert (Sonata no.20 in A) interpreter, with a preference for the composer’s last sonatas. But the pianist was particularly impressive in three Debussy preludes. Coming after the Liszt pieces you could clearly hear Debussy’s source and inspiration. Piemontesi is great for clarity, virtuosity and colour, but mystery is not his thing. This was my first meeting with Piemontesi, but I will keep an eye on him.

his concert and many others from the Verbier Festival 2017 you can find on Medici.tv. The festival continues until August 6.

Verbier Festival Website

Evgeny Kissin at the Verbier Festival 2017, photo: Nicolas Brodars

The hills are alive with the sound of Kissin

Verbier Festival  visited 25-28 July, 2017

Verbier in the south-western Swiss Alps offers pretty awesome views. The village, which during the high season turns into a town, lies at about 1500 metres.  But if it is truly spectacular panoramas you’re after you have to take the cable car up to Mont Fort (3,328 m). This is where Verbier basks in the glory of a whole host of legendary peaks in both Switzerland and France. Admittedly the skies have to be clear and the highest tops of the Mont Blanc massif are quite often  shrouded in clouds. all the more reason to concentrate on the music on offer down in town.

In July and August well over 100 talented young musicians, picked from all over the world, gather here for three weeks to scale the heights of professional musicianship. They come to learn from some of the top soloists and conductors that perform during the 17 days that the Verbier Festival lasts. There are three different  festival orchestras and they all consist of musicians that are studying at the summer academy. But the soloists and conductors are either up-and-coming, well-established, or very famous classical musicians.

Evgeny Kissin qualifies in that last category. He has recently signed a new contract with Deutsche Grammophon and will soon release a double CD with live recordings of five Beethoven sonatas and the once popular 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80. Kissin only started to perform and record works by Beethoven 20 years ago and up until recently he didn’t feel ready to present sonata no.29 in B-flat major, op.106 in front of a live audience. We are talking Beethoven’s Hammerklavier which technically is probably his most challenging work for piano. On top of that the third, Adagio sostenuto,  movement should come with a level of visionary clarity that can rarely be achieved by young interpreters. Kissin (45) is no longer  young,  probably to his great relief, but he already entered the pianist’s hall of fame back in the 80s. He doesn’t have all that much to prove, although he could do with widening his repertoire if he wanted to set himself a challenge.  But he is already so outstanding at what he does perform, that there can be no living pianist that attracts more top level colleagues to their concerts. In Verbier I spotted  the American pianist Richard Goode, but I am sure there were a couple of others among the 1,600 people in the audience.

Kissin likes coming to Verbier and a number of his recitals from previous festivals are available on the classical music channel Medici.tv  and others have been released on CD.

Evgeny Kissin examines the keyboard at the Verbier Festival. photo: Nicolas Brodard

Kissin is technically one of the technically most accomplished pianists on the planet, but in the past he has been accused of not matching skills with heart. After hearing this terrific performance of the piano sonata in B flat, op. 106 I doubt that anyone could doubt his emotional input. The first movement Allegro he took on with gusto and almost frenetic speed, without being reckless. It almost sounded like Kissin was trying to stick to Beethoven’s impossibly fast metronome marking of 138, but after a while he settled as he set out to develop the fairly simple idea of the opening theme into some very complex structures. It was absolutely riveting stuff, but on the edge of sanity. The Scherzo gave some relief and actually sounded playful, or was it sarcastic? The Adagio sostenuto was, as one would expect, searching and at the same time transcendental and completely serene. The transitional Largo was elegant and formed a stark contrast to the inevitable fury of the three-voice fugue of the Allegro-risoluto. Kissin’s interpretation made me more than ever realise that Beethoven, obviously with hindsight, here achieved baroque on the cusp of 20th century modernism. This is virtually Bach with added total abandon. Among the dissonances and rhythmic clashes there is still time for cantabile passages. It is as if Beethoven was saying: “ It’s OK, I am in control, just needed to get that out of the system”. And yes, Evgeny Kissin was in total control and yes, he nailed the sonata, without hammering it.

Kissin loves his Chopin, a fact that is pretty obvious when you look at all the recordings he has ever made. Strangely enough Kissin has not really touched Bach’s works (I would love to hear his Goldberg Variations!). Rachmaninoff’s preludes are inspired by both Bach and Chopin and they are in Kissin’s (and most major Russian pianist’s) DNA. In the second half of the concert Kissin played half of Rachmaninoff’s preludes repertoire ( 24  were published during his lifetime).  Rachmaninoff hated playing Prelude Op.3 in C sharp minor ( but audiences demanded it). Kissin adores showing it off, without being asked. The with doom-laden pedaling never gets in the way of total clarity. How he manages to play the Rachmaninoff encore favourite Prelude in G minor (Op.23 No.5) without banging this noble chordophone only he and God knows (compare with Lang Lang, for instance). Kissin played as much on emotional strings, particularly in the opus 32 preludes, as he displayed his immaculate technique. He  doesn’t seem to do bum notes. Kissin gave us three encores: a Beethoven bagatelle, a Scriabin etude (in C sharp minor, op.2) and his very own Toccata proved that this Russian/Israeli/ British could have been an excellent jazz pianist as well, but as career choices go I think he probably made a wise choice.