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At the Verbier Festival, a lot of music is packed into a small town

From Brahms’s chamber music to Mozart opera, the little Swiss ski-village provides a musical feast.

Steven Isserlis performing with Joshua Bell and Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo: Aline Paley
Steven Isserlis performing with Joshua Bell and Marc-Andre Hamelin. Photo: Aline Paley

Talk about a room with a view. Step out of the main concert hall at the Verbier Festival and you’re confronted with mountainscapes on all sides. Sometimes the Alps are muffled in clouds, sometimes clear up to their still-white peaks, but either way it’s a vista that cannot but colour and shape all you hear inside.

Looking at the busy streets and restaurants, it’s hard to imagine that until Martin Engstroem founded the festival back in 1994 this exquisite little Swiss ski-village was a ghost town in summer. But that’s all changed, and for over two weeks each year Verbier becomes a playground for some of classical music’s biggest names. Everyone has been: Martha Argerich is a regular, as are Evgeny Kissin, Mischa Maisky and Mikhail Pletnev. Of the younger generation you’re usually likely to see Yuja Wang, the Capuçon brothers, Leonidas Kavakos and pianist-du-jour Daniil Trifonov.

Unlike most of Europe’s big summer festivals though, Verbier isn’t content just to ship in the big names with their latest recital programmes. Artists are invited here to try new things – to work with new repertoire and colleagues – and over the years these encounters and collaborations have yielded some fine recordings and ongoing partnerships.

This year, the festival’s final weekend opened with a chamber concert celebrating one of those musical partnerships that brings years of history with it. British cellist Steven Isserlis and American violinist Joshua Bell came together with pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin to create a starry classical supergroup. Brahms’ Trio No. 1 in B major is one of the great works of the chamber repertoire – a miniature that packs symphonic scope and weight into its slight frame, setting cello and violin in an impassioned dialogue. Isserlis’s instinctual style shares little with Bell’s polished sweetness of delivery except an expressiveness that both arrive at by very different means.

Here, Isserlis responded to the music’s every mercurial twitch and glance with vivid shifts, leading us in movement and muscular tone from the fugal Bach-inspired moments of the  Allegro to its expansive moments of lyricism. Bell’s approach to performance is more crafted, but was no less striking here – goaded and urged beyond beauty and comfort by Isserlis’s craggier textures. Underplaying the Adagio with a restraint whose strength was in suggesting so much more than it would fulfil, Bell found an innocence to it that restored us to a simplicity cast aside in Brahms’s witty Scherzo.

After the interval Hamelin, Isserlis and  Bell returned, joined by violinist Pamela Frank and violist Nobuko Imai for Franck’s Quintet for Piano and Strings in F minor. Opening in moody shades of umber, the mood was urgent and uncertain, rendered all the more unstable by Hamelin’s unusually delicate balance in the mix, allowing the surface textures of the strings to dominate a shifting foreground of sound, almost unanchored.

While Verbier has no theatre (and even the concert hall is a temporary affair, reconstructed from scratch each season), the festival still programmes a number of operas each year, whether in concert performance or semi-staged in the large Salle des Combins. This year’s unlikeliest contender was surely Mozart’s Il Re Pastore, the work of the 19-year-old composer (though far from his first), and barely ever performed. Which is a bit of a mystery, because the score is loaded with fine arias, memorable melodies and even the plot is unusually straightforward (albeit featuring a character called “Abdolonymos”).

Illnesses and withdrawals saw casting change significantly from that initially announced, but even with tenor Rolando Villazón replaced just a few days before the performance by Kresimir Spicer (conveniently holidaying just down the mountain in Geneva), the final line-up was an impressive one. Most striking were the three leading women. Iulia Maria Dan as the Shepherd King himself radiated the warmth required to turn this rather Pollyanna-ish monarch, who would rather tend his sheep than rule, from caricature to character. A small, glittering voice grew through the performance into one capable of doing battle with the thunderstorm taking place outside the hall, her coloratura freely expressive and easy throughout her range. If this young singer fulfils even a fraction of the promise she showed here, it will be a very exciting career to watch indeed.

She was supported by Verbier-regular and Festival Academy alumnus Emöke Barath, who made a prettily petulant Tamiri, warm in the middle of her voice and blossoming into particular beauty at the top. Though perhaps the least “finished” of the voices on show here, Regula Mühlemann (Elisa) was striking for the sheer loveliness of her vocal tone. This is still a very small voice, but perfectly produced. Coupled with her acting – natural and believable – it would be hard not to hope to hear her grow into a Susanna or similar very soon.

The Festival Chamber Orchestra played with verve and stylish gusto under Gábor Takács-Nagy, whom Engstroem credits with turning this ensemble into something particularly special. Takács-Nagy is an irrepressible presence on the podium, and not even thunderstorms, rain, and an unexpected mid-performance hiatus could dull the sheen he brought to this opera – convincing us all that it really does deserve its time in the spotlight.

In a long weekend of music, these performances – like the mountains all around – reveal just the tip of what happens at a festival that juggles its professional programme with extensive educational projects (including, for the first time this year, a music camp for 15-17 year olds). Verbier packs a lot of music into a small town. I left sated, not just with Raclette but with an excess of new repertoire, new artists and new musical experiences.