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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Anthony Horowitz’s New Blood is the most accurate portrayal of London millennial life on TV

 “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

The police procedural is hardly the most cutting edge televisual format, burdened as it is by generic clichés and tired characters. But every now and then, one comes along attempting to do something new with an old format – from Life on Mars to Happy Valley. The latest effort is the BBC’s New Blood. Created by Anthony Horowitz, it follows two (extremely handsome) junior investigators, both second-generation immigrants in their early twenties living in London: Arash Sayyad (Ben Tavassoli), working for the Met, and Stefan Kowolski (Mark Strepan), who works for the Serious Fraud Office.

On the surface, there is nothing revolutionary about this programme – it has all the usual hallmarks of its genre. Stefan and Rash dislike each other at first, but find circumstance thrusts them together on numerous unlikely occasions – who woulda thunk these two oddballs would become partners in crime prevention!!! Both have older bosses who raise exasperated eyebrows at their unconventional but often effective methods. Each work on cases at first, seemingly unrelated to one another, but each time slowly are revealed to be intertwined.

But there is something slightly strange about this programme that’s apparent from the very first episode. As Radio Times critic Huw Fullerton wrote in his review of the show’s opening case, New Blood is “obsessed” with the London property market:

“Throughout the first few episodes lead characters Stefan and Rash regularly suspend their investigations into murder and corruption to fret about getting on the housing ladder, the rights they have to fixed rent and the logistics of getting a mortgage on a low salary.  Even one of the series’ villains couldn’t resist getting in on the property action, evilly swilling a glass of wine and threatening his niece with eviction from her rent-free Zone 1 flat if she didn’t keep supplying him with illicit information.”

“I know how hard it is for young professionals in London,” the villain in question purrs. “House prices are ridiculous.” And as further cases have unfolded, including last night’s finale, this streak has only become more extreme. Some of the series most significant events are motivated by people hoping to preserve the value of their luxurious central properties; Rash’s sister gives him the details of a potential room in Wandsworth as a kind of present; Stefan and Rash are thrown together by their shared desperate need to find somewhere affordable to live. One of the highest-octane moments of the series’s final episode involves an action montage of the pair running across London after a traumatic car accident to make their scheduled time for a flat viewing. It’s almost laughable.

But it’s not just property that drives the characters and plots on New Blood. It’s all the concerns of millennial life in London – immigration levels, transport, the environment, isolation and mental health. Stefan and Rash cycle to their insecure jobs (both are constantly being fired) and undercover meetings with big pharma bosses and property developers, trying to right the great wrongs of the city. Stefan uses his Polish language abilities to communicate with the low-paid workers often exploited by the villains of each case – one of whom says to him, “Do you know how hard we work? How little we earn? This city never gives you any chances.”

Debates about high-rise developments and corporate greed nestle in with chatty dialogue about being underpaid, unappreciated and undermined by the city. Even the deaths seem to play on urban anxieties: a man tumbles to his death from an E3 tower block, while a woman suffers a fatal fall from a tall escalator at an underground station, her death calmly declared in an announcement that continues, “There is a good service on all other lines.”

The result is an overly earnest but surprisingly accurate portrait of a certain kind of young professional in London – the only thing that stopped me laughing at the constant overwrought references the housing crisis was thinking of how much of my own brain-space is dedicated to thinking about rent, and how much I talk about it as a result.

It also means the show has a refreshing take on villains – there are no stereotypical lone-wolf terrorists or crazed spurned women here. Instead, Stefan and Rash repeatedly attempt to arrest the uber-rich and powerful: criminals who can hide behind facades of legitimacy and wealth. The show’s very premise – the Serious Fraud Office and the police teaming up to form a heroic young double act – rests on the idea that the city’s greatest injustices are made by corporations and corrupt governments hoping to fleece the ordinary individuals that live there.

Many reviewers have criticised the show for being too on-the-nose in its urban criticisms, but for me that’s where the hilarity and the joy of this show lies. Where else could the line, “You wouldn’t want that, any more than you would want to lose this flat” be delivered with such delicious venom?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.