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By Patricia Boccadoro

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 18 August 2006 —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 José van Dam, one of the finest and best-loved bass-baritones of our time.

All those who had seen van Dam in Gérard 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?"

José van Dam
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro

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 José 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 her…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 steel!
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.

He 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.    

Joshua Bell
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?

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