Verbier's 20th anniversary: a festival of encounters and collisions

The Swiss Verbier Festival does epic, polyphonous music well - but it's real gift is for intimate chamber recitals.

To stand in Verbier’s central square in July is to experience a Charles Ives piece composed live as you listen. From under a brightly-coloured tent a band strikes up a Django Reinhardt-inspired “hot jazz” number – infectious, but not quite enough to draw the ear away from the Schumann string quartet that is filtering out from a hotel dining room. Then there’s the singing: surges of Rossini from the local cinema, and later, as evening falls, the persistent wail of karaoke coming from one of the many bars. It would take a brave man indeed to describe the Swiss Alps as “hills” but, during festival season there’s no denying that they come alive with music.

The Verbier Festival has become a fixture of summer here, transforming an off-season resort to peak activity and energy for just over two weeks each year. The creation of Martin Engstroem, one-time Vice President of A & R at Deutsche Grammophon and before that a major classical agent, the festival has the glossiest little black book in the business and a roster that rivals its setting for glamour.

This year’s performers included not only up-and-comers such as pianists Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili and Daniil Trifonov, violinists Vilde Frang and Renaud Capucon and cellist and Gauthier Capucon, but also the established old-guard. Evgeny Kissin jostled for programme-space with Emmanuel Ax, Mischa Maisky, Yuri Bashmet and even the elusive Mikhail Pletnev, making a return to the piano after so many years away. It’s a musical feast to sustain visitors all the way through to the next year.

But big though festival celebrations always are, Verbier’s 20th birthday was always going to yield something special. And it doesn’t get much bigger than Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with its sprawling six-movement structure and cast of hundreds. Conducted here by Andres Orozco-Estrada it was a performance that charmed as well as awed though, that found the intimate colouristic details and narratives among the long musical arcs.

Much of this was down to the young musicians of Verbier’s Festival Orchestra. If you peel back the layers of international soloists, coaches and visiting ensembles that make up the festival company, at the core of Verbier is its resident orchestra. Made up of the most talented young performers from across the world it’s a musical finishing school for tomorrow’s superstars. Indeed many of the festival’s headline performers have graduated up through the ranks themselves. Grouped together into a single ensemble, what’s striking is the willingness of these precocious instrumentalists to exchange centre-stage attention for a corporate identity, blending and dissolving their sound into a larger musical fabric rather than setting themselves apart.

It’s an attitude that’s crucial to the success of Mahler’s polyphonous symphony, which relies on such a careful calibration between its many components if it’s not to topple under its own weight. From the two clarinets, pointing skywards, who here heralded the arrival of summer, to the impossibly sustained and demanding posthorn solo in the third movement, the miraculously hushed web of strings that beckoned us into the final Langsam and the bright pipings of the children’s choir, Orozco-Estrada kept all his elements in balance. We revelled in the landscape of Mahler’s musical mountains (echoed outside the Salle des Combins by the Alps themselves), but remained safely grounded by the sardonic little sallies from the brass and the strings with their brisk march. Soloist Lilli Paasikivi joined this performance in the same textural spirit as her colleagues – amplifying rather than dominating the fourth movement with Nietzsche’s evocative text.

While there’s no denying that Verbier does epic well, the festival is perhaps most synonymous with the intimacy of chamber music. These smaller events – the lunchtime and late-night recitals up in Verbier’s angular contemporary church – bring major performers together in unfamiliar ensembles, allowing them to explore new repertoire alongside new musical relationships. It was one of these events that brought pianist-du-jour Daniil Trifonov together with violinist Renaud Capucon for a programme roaming across centuries from Bach to Franck. Both these young performers have become festival regulars, but seeing them as a duo promised some interesting negotiation between Trifonov’s exuberant virtuosity and Capucon’s precision.

On a stormy, grey day in mountains lost among cloud the subdued melancholy of Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Keyboard No. 3 was the only choice. It’s rare in London’s early-music-dominated scene to hear these performed live with piano rather than a more authentic keyboard instrument, but Bach’s architecture can easily carry the extra sonority and it throws up different shadows and angles on a familiar work. The breezy Allegro was Bach as performed in a 19th-century salon – urbane and always beautiful, with Capucon in particular rounding the rougher edges of period performance. The final movement Allegro, with its athletic accompaniment, had more than a whiff of the Chopin that Trifonov would later perform in his own solo recital, and was none the worse for that, giving us richness as well as dazzle.

Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy silhouetted virtuosity against restraint with skill, but it was Franck’s Sonata in A that saw both performers at their finest. This French 20th-century repertoire is where Capucon really comes into his own, daring Trifonov on to greater and greater simplicity in the opening Allegro before casting it all aside in fiery release in the second movement. The Recitativo is a tricky section, digesting fragments from various movements into an always-shifting mood, but Capucon led us through without ever losing his hold on the narrative thread through the maze.

Verbier is a festival for encounters and collisions. You won’t find soloists touting their big-hits recital programmes here, but you will find something better. In an industry increasingly obsessed with digital perfection and polish, with achieving a definitive interpretation, Verbier throws wide the door to experimentation and risk. Disguised as a festival, this is really a laboratory for music-making, generating the combustible reactions between music and musicians that release real heat in the concert hall and studio.

The Verbier Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Photograph: Nicholas Brodard.
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear