Sunday, August 11, 2019

Verbier Festival - Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra - 08/02/19

Conductor: Leonidas Kavakos 
Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K.364/320d 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Antoine Tamestit: Viola 
Mozart: Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297/300a (Paris) 
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 

Partly by chance and partly by design, my last day in Verbier was going to be very busy in the best possible way. The Swiss National Day festivities were now a thing of the past – In typical Swiss fashion, even early morning the village was as sparkling clean as if nothing had happened the night before – but there was still plenty to look forward to on my schedule. And even the two hikes to the highly perched Salle des Combins with still recovering joints and a short but spectacular rain shower to start the day did not manage to put a damper on any of it.
It all began with the free open rehearsal of the evening’s concert featuring the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, Verbier regular Leonidas Kavakos fulfilling double duty as conductor and violinist, and the ubiquitous French violist Antoine Tamestit for a program that included compositions by Mozart and Beethoven. Not exactly unfamiliar fare, but hey, there’s a reason why those works have become classics after all, and a little reminder once in a while never hurts.
Starting with the symphonic works, including a particularly inspired allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Kavakos and the precociously talented musicians of the chamber orchestra worked long and hard while giving the audience much to be enjoyed already. After the well-deserved intermission, watching Kavakos and Tamestit brilliantly play off each other was another fun time that would definitely bear repeating a few hours later.
And that’s just what I did, after a seasonal lunch of rösti with chanterelles and apricot tart eaten al fresco on the balcony with a view of the Relais des Neiges restaurant, followed by a pre-concert talk by Verbier Festival Foundation and Academy musicologist Michèle Larivière, who provided valuable context and insights regarding the program. But then again, indulging in the culinary and musical arts is what vacation, and life, should be all about, n'est-ce-pas?

Having Leonidas Kavakos “just” conduct always feels like such a damn waste when you know what he can do with a violin. On the other hand, on Friday night, we got to hear him not only play his inseparable Stradivarius, but also engage in a perfectly balanced and high-spirited conversation with Antoine Tamestit, the other Stradivarius-wielding duettist, during Mozart’s delightful Sinfonia Concertante. The dazzling cross-over piece was written when the fast-evolving artist was 22 years old, and the fact that it would suit those two certified virtuosos so well more than two centuries later incidentally also speaks volumes about the composer's visionary nature and timeless appeal.
After this uplifting performance, Kavakos was back sans violin, baton or score to conduct Mozart’s lively Paris symphony. Composed shortly after his Sinfonia Concertante for what was at the time an unusually large orchestra, his Symphony No. 31 is a rather short but irresistibly engaging and impressively confident work, to which conductor and orchestra did full justice on Friday night. From the bluntly assertive opening all the way to the positively sweeping finale, countless gorgeous melodies happily filled up the space and spontaneously brought a smile to everybody’s face, confirming the steady power of this concert favorite all over again.
After Mozart’s youthful efforts and an intermission, we were greeted by Beethoven and his symphony No. 7. Released a couple of decades after the Mozart pieces we had just heard, the Seventh took us on brand new, much wilder territory with an ambitious first movement, an ever-popular and achingly beautiful allegretto, a breathless scherzo, and a take-no-prisoners finale, which the fired-up orchestra readily turned into a thrilling roller-coaster that we were all only too eager to ride. Even the young boy behind me who had at times been fidgety during the first half of the program became completely mesmerized by the sheer intensity of the whole experience. Not a bad way to conclude this first, but hopefully not last, Verbier Festival.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Verbier Festival - András Schiff - Bach - 08/01/19

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893, Book II 

On top of allowing me to enjoy fabulous music, climate, scenery and, of course, chocolate to the fullest, my four-day stay in Verbier incidentally also provided with a valuable insight in Swiss history, namely that August 1 is Swiss National Day. Needless to say, I totally felt like I was in the right place at the right time.
I also decided that when in Switzerland, I would do as the Swiss do. That essentially meant hanging out at the lively street fair downtown, making a de rigueur stop at the charming Galerie du Chocolat for a light but tasty hot chocolate al fresco, and resting my still ailing joints to be able to take one more trip down rue de Médran and up route des Creux to the Church at Verbier-Station in the evening.
For some inexplicable reasons, in all my years of dedicated concert going I had never grabbed a chance to hear Sir András Schiff live, which is all the more unpardonable since our paths crossed more than once while his prestigious career was taking him all over the world. On the other hand, how better to fix this deplorable situation than by attending his performance of the second book of Bach’s legendary Well-Tempered Clavier at the Verbier Festival?

As an additional bonus, before the concert started in earnest, Schiff treated the packed audience to a short introduction to the work, even showing us the score and marveling that no corrections or transversal lines could be found in it, only waves of notes. After a few technical pointers addressed to the cognoscenti, he also assured us that he would try to finish in time for the fireworks. Clearly, the man had everything under control.
Written two decades after Book I, the more ambitious preludes and fugues in Book II offer a wider range of forms and styles, from buoyant to melancholic, from dark to poetic, which the consummate pianist handled with understated virtuosity. Having apparently decided to let the music speak for itself, he kept his playing subtle and unhurried, which ironically ended up making a remarkably strong impression. 
The intermission-free performance wrapped up just before 10 P.M., but the outside world obviously could not wait that long, and about 15 minutes before the last note the first fireworks unceremoniously made themselves heard inside the hushed church. Completely unperturbed, Schiff carried on with a steady pace and unwavering commitment, which as we all know are key ingredients to successfully completing such a marathon, or any marathon for that matter.
Once outside, back on the village’s tiny square, three alphorn players dressed in full traditional garb were entertaining a small crowd while down the rue de la Poste the street fair that had been going on all day was still in full swing and sparkling fireworks occasionally lit up the pitch black sky. Who said that the Swiss don’t know how to party?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Verbier Festival - Quartuor Ébène - Brahms, Dutilleux & Beethoven - 07/31/19

Brahms: String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51 
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit Beethoven: 
String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59 (Razumovsky No. 1) 

Although subway trains and neighborhood restaurants are often blissfully less crowded in summer, New York City invariably seems to be stuck in a hot and humid lull that even the Mostly Mozart Festival cannot always manage to shake.
Therefore, this year I decided to kill two birds with one stone: by finally attending the prestigious Verbier Festival, I would be scratching one more item off my bucket list while indulging in a majestic landscape, fresh air and chocolate. That would of course still mean a few inconveniences, such as putting up with mass tourism and exorbitant prices, but living for almost a decade in New York City had prepared me for those.
That’s how in late July and early August, after a couple of days in Geneva, I found myself on a train, and then another train, and then a cable car to reach the posh mountain resort of Verbier and temporarily settle in a spacious one-bedroom apartment with an amazing view (and an equally amazing bathtub).
As if to make the deal even sweeter, my first concert would be by the Quatuor Ébène, whom I hadn’t heard in a couple of years, and not since the original violist Mathieu Herzog left the ensemble. I had missed his first replacement, but I was looking forward to checking out how Marie Chilemme, the current recruit in that position, was faring.
So never mind the tumble I took in Geneva’s Old Town two days earlier that had left me with a sprained ankle and a sore knee, on Wednesday evening I slowly waddled my way down the steep rue de Médran and up the equally challenging route des Creux to the resolutely modern and immaculately white Church in Verbier-Station. And before long our delighted ears filled up with exhilarating live music int the bare, intimate space.

The program started with my beloved Johannes Brahms and his String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51, the first of the three string quartets the ultimate perfectionist wrote and considered good enough for public consumption. Richly lyrical and organically flowing, it is an unsurprisingly masterful effort on the part of the composer, and on Wednesday night it received the glowing performance it deserved, Marie Chilemme fitting in seamlessly in the tight-as-ever ensemble.
After Brahms’ lush Romanticism, we boldly moved on to a contemporary French piece that has been fascinating me ever since I first heard it years ago. Comprised of seven linked movements for a total duration of less than twenty minutes, Henri Dutilleux’s one and only string quartet Ainsi la nuit quickly and quietly enveloped the mesmerized audience in its mysterious nocturnal atmosphere with exquisite dissonances, sudden contrasts, irreverent sparks and impressionistic touches.
After intermission, we were in for the most substantial work of the program in Beethoven’s glorious Razumovsky No. 1, one of the composer’s most exciting chamber works, for which the Quatuor Ébène unquestionably delivered their most exciting performance of the evening, apparently thrilled to no end at having such a deliciously meaty piece to sink their teeth in. As for the rest of us, it was essentially impossible not to be spontaneously carried away by the daunting complexity of the score and the sheer force of the playing. And so we were.