VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 18
August 2006 â€”If the Verbier Festival and Academy can be characterised
by the fact that Martin Engstroem, its director and founder, convinces the
world-renowned musicians he invites to Verbier to take on
new repertoire, and to perform with artists with whom they
have never played before, then it is also true to say that
another reason for its being are the prestigious master classes.
Master classes this year were given by such illustrious names
as Pamela Frank, Boris Kuschnir, Nobuko Imai, Roberto Diaz, Frans
Helmerson, Lang Lang as well as Thomas Quasthoff and JosÃ© van Dam,
one of the finest and best-loved bass-baritones of our time.
All those who had seen van Dam in GÃ©rard
Corbiau's, Le Maitre de Musique rushed to be there! His classes
were a joy and not only for his relaxed elegance and sparkling ice-blue
eyes. His manner was gentle and refined, his corrections just and
respectful, interspersed with amusing and frequently helpful anecdotes which put his
students at ease. To one student he commented, "this young
man has been listening too much to my recordings; he makes all
the same mistakes as me. How can I correct him?"
JosÃ© van Dam
After their week-long tuition, I spoke to several
of the young singers. Ronan Collett is
a 24 year-old graduate from London's Royal Academy of Music,
a wonderful baritone, with a voice which is rich, warm and deep.
He was delighted to take classes with JosÃ© van Dam.
"I wanted to study abroad for a year before
starting on a professional career," Ronan told me, "and when I saw on the
Internet that van Dam and Quasthoff were giving classes here, I sent off a
recording. I'd never worked with van Dam before and have learned so much
in such a short time. He taught me the importance of diction and pronunciation
no matter what language you are singing, and to convey
to my audience the meaning of what I'm singing. With van Dam,
it is the honesty of expression which is so important."
His words were echoed by Austrian baritone, Stefan
Zenkl, who at 29 has already begun his professional career, and by Susanna
Anderssen, a 28 year-old soprano from Sweden who speaks and sings in seven
languages. Difficult to always correct pronunciation! Blonde, blue-eyed and
slender, she not only has a crystalline voice but a
charismatic, compelling stage presence. "I learnt", she said, "that I had not
only to sing the personage, but to become herâ€¦or him!"
The atmosphere of the classes changed the second
week with Thomas Quasthoff at the helm. He might well be one of the
greatest living performers around with an excellent reputation as a
teacher in Berlin, in Verbier, his main objective seemed to be to
entertain his audience at the expense of the students. Several people
observing lessons found him so crude and offensive that they left. His
mimicry and sarcasm, and tendency to suffocate pupils to impose only his
point of view were a shame as he has so much to give. Perhaps a warning
sign should have been put up; Attention, classes for pupils with nerves of
This year also marked the
debut of the UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, vaunted as a
highlight, but doomed to an inauspicious start because of adverse weather
conditions. Maxim Vengerov conducted Mozart's Violin Concerto No 2 in D Major K211,
but competition from the wind, the thunder and lightening, and
the heavy rain beating down on the huge white tent proved too
much for him and after several false starts he abandoned.
returned after the storm had somewhat abated, but his concentration
and inspiration had gone. Trying too hard, his playing of Mozart's Violin
Concerto No 4 in D Major K218 was mannered and empty.
However, the disappointment of that evening
was offset a day or so later by a small, unheralded concert
of very great beauty. Such is the magic of Verbier.
A tribute to Robert Schumann was given in a
morning concert in the church on July 29th, exactly 150 years after the composer's death. Joshua Bell, Tobias Koch,
and the brilliant British cellist, Steven Isserlis, a man whose
sincerity and humanity is an inspiration to all around him gave what
was perhaps the most moving performance in the entire festival.
Isserlis spoke to the audience explaining the
context of Schumann's last surviving major work, his third violin
concerto, a work closely associated with the composer's madness, where
Brahms and Dietrich had created two movements. In their absence, Schumann
had replaced these contributions with two further movements of his own.
Steven Isserlis explained that he had transcribed this for the cello mainly because he felt
the low-register writing for the violin became higher and more
brilliant when played by the cello, but also because the work, which
he considered a masterpiece, was so rarely played by violinists.
The timing could not have
been more poignant, as the piece was played exactly at
the same time that Schumann died alone, a century and a half
ago, while Clara his wife, was out dining with Brahms.
Bell, Koch and Isserlis, inhabited by the music,
shared the same intensity of emotion, the same musical sensitivity. They
were on the same wave-length, which was all the more surprising as Tobias
Koch, who did know his fellow musicians, arrived as a last-minute replacement for an
absent Jeremy Denk. As an encore, they played the slow
movement of the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, No 1 in D
Minor op. 63 a second time; it was heart-breakingly sad.
Photo: Marc Shapiro
Happily, the concert that same evening was of
quite a different nature! The controversial Turkish pianist and composer,
Fazil Say had the church jumping out from its foundations, never mind the
audience. The evening began with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, sauce Say, followed by a limpid, lyrical
Ravel, exquisitely lovely, two of his own extraordinary compositions, ending
up with a selection of jazzed up Gershwin which rocked the church
and left his audience heads spinning, faces wreathed in smiles.
Adulated, loathed, or sometimes even feared,
sulphurous Say never, ever leaves an audience indifferent...his music was full of the joy and
passion of life. His fingers sang along the keys, the
notes tumbling over each other in an irresistible and glorious cacophony of
sound which jostled to go beyond the music being played.
He told me that he was currently composing a
concerto to be performed with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya...in
Switzerland? Next year?