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.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war