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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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge