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By Patricia Boccadoro

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 14 September 2005—Within three days in this enchanting Swiss village there were concerts given by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Thomas Quasthoff,  Evgeny Kissin, and Lynn Harrell, by Mischa Maisky and Julian Bliss, as well as a recital by Kiri Te Kanawa, while  Ivry Gitlis,  Garrick Ohlsson and Julian Rachlin played in the local church. There were some of the biggest names around which normally one would be grateful to see in a lifetime. Actors including Jacques Weber and writers such as Paulo Coelho gave talks, but despite the glittering cascade of artists, what stuns at the Verbier Festival is the sheer quality of each performance given.

The rendering of Mozart's Serenade N° 10, "Gran Partita"in B flat Major  K 361, transcription by Alexei Ogrintchouk the young Russian oboe player, was a revelation.  Ogrintchouk's oboe was in constant communication with Rachlin's alto in a fascinating musical conversation with Ilya Gringolts on the violin and Ralph Kirshbaum on the cello putting in their word, all four accompanied by pianist Elena Bashkirova who imposed her view as well. A jewel of a piece, stunningly interpreted.

After the concert, Alexei Ogrintchouk told me of his joy at being invited to play in Verbier and of his amazement at the incredibly high level of the concerts given there. He was still under the spell of the previous evening when he had heard a recital of the German bass-baritone, Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Evgeny Kissin.

"Quasthoff was magnificent", Ogrintchouk said, "but what astonished me was the quality of the accompaniment.  Kissin is a pianist I have admired all my life, but I have never seen anyone listen so attentively to a singer before. He was aware of the slightest nuance in Quasthoff's voice and his playing was so, well, subtle, that at the same time, he enhanced the Lieder without making anyone aware he was playing the piano at all!"

Thomas Quasthoff
Photo: Kasskara / DG

I met Thomas Quasthoff the following day, when, gazing out over the high, snow-capped mountains rising jagged against a brilliant blue sky, the singer, now one of the finest of his generation, spoke to me of his love for the festival. "It's so incredibly beautiful here", he said. "It's no wonder Martin Engstroem* manages to bring so many top-class musicians year after year. It's a gift for us all to be together and I've learned so much just from listening to as well as making music with such great colleagues. It was a dream come true to be accompanied by Martha Argerich last year, and now Evgeny Kissin . After our concert last night, he just hugged me, saying that he had wanted to accompany me on the piano for as long as he could remember! I have to thank Martin from the bottom of my heart, for where else would this happen?  Verbier is not only about music, but about the whole human atmosphere here. It is so calm and everyone is so relaxed and free in rehearsals. I've been to many festivals including Tanglewood and Ravinia, but never to one as unique as this. It's why we all keep coming back".

Quasthoff, who was born in Hildesheim, Germany, in 1959, now lives in Berlin with his wife-to-be, Claudia, and small daughter, Lotte. He grew up, he told me, in a music-making atmosphere, and was greatly influenced by his family who supported him strongly in his choice of career.

"My father, who also studied singing, suggested I start professional lessons when I was thirteen", he said.  "Up until then I had been listening to recordings and reproducing what I heard. So for the next seventeen years I studied singing with Charlotte Lehmann every week, almost very day for the last two years, and music theory and history with Ernst Huber-Contwig.  Then came 1984 and the first singing competition I won, followed by a first prize at the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1988. From then on things became easy because people's interest in me was aroused and I began to be invited to sing around the world."

"However", he added, "winning a competition is very much easier than sustaining the level for ever after…. But I do have something to say, as do all the truly great musicians here."

In 1996, the same year that he won the Shostakovich prize in Moscow, Quasthoff began teaching at the Detmold Musikhochschule, a parallel career which he greatly enjoys. "I love working with young people", he continued, "and for the past two years, in addition to a recent post in Berlin, I've also given master-classes here. Last year, I invited a young Canadian soprano, Measha Brueggergosman  to join me, knowing that as soon as Engstroem heard her, she would be asked back to sing. One of the most important aspects of this festival lies in the encouragement given to new artists."

"The first time I heard Measha sing, I came out in goose pimples", he said. "She has a huge talent for lieder singing, and demonstrates just how colourful the human voice can be". Indeed, when Measha Brueggergosman began singing in the little church in Verbier, there was something that went way beyond song, above technique. It was heart-breaking.  She possesses one of the most glorious voices around, and a joy of performing that reaches out to all her audience.

Measha Brueggergosman and Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Photo: P. Boccadoro

"So much of my success is due to Thomas Quasthoff", she told me after her concert." He has been a huge, huge support, and it's because of him I'm here, in this extraordinary place with such an intimidating high level of music-making. I'm thrilled to be able to, well, orbit the planet of all these musicians that are hanging out here!"

"Being here has also given me the opportunity of meeting Jean-Yves Thibaudet who accompanied me, a pianist I've long admired. There is no substitute for your personal relationship with a pianist, and we have something which clicked right from the beginning. I love him! He's a luminous person, and I can't help sounding better when he's there."

"My Masters was in late romantic German lieder, in Germany because Edith Weins was there, and for the moment I'm happy doing recitals and concert repertoire as she did before making her operatic debut. Up until recently I've been reluctant to record because I felt it was too early. I wanted my voice to be recognizable fifteen years from now.**

"Quasthoff is the continuation of my work with Wiens because he is the incarnation of what lieder are supposed to be, although I know he sings Gershwin and jazz and all that too. Lieder, which is all about the relationship between music and text, is a story-telling form, and it's multi-layered, like an onion", she explained. "The singer must take you on a journey that leaves you changed at the end. And also, as there's only one of me singing, I'd better make it interesting. But I often look at my audience in amazement to think they actually pay me for doing something I love so much!"

"There's such joy in the pursuit of learning, but once on stage, the key is to make technique invisible. I cannot wonder where to take a breath when I'm singing about unrequited love or suicide! There are moments which are so quiet and meaningful that actual thought goes away and other times when the weight of meaning in a phrase almost paralyzes me."

It's one of the reasons too, why this sublime artist, warm and spontaneous off-stage, always prefers to sing bare-footed.

"High heels, which anyway are unnatural, tilt my pelvis, and affect my breathing, as well as a whole bunch of other things", she said. "I can't stop thinking that I've got stiletto heels on, and so I always wear long dresses to hide the fact I've no shoes on at all, unless of course it poses a problem for the conductor. I like to create the environment I sing in when I'm not performing", she smiled, "but I would wear flip-flops if they looked O.K. with an evening-dress. I also tend to sweat a lot when singing, and planting my feet firmly on the ground keeps me cooler."

Her feet are firmly planted on the floor in more ways than one, for the moment this immensely gifted woman, looking far younger than her 28 years, takes off on an operatic career, she will explode onto the world's international scene.

Perhaps Kiri Te Kanawa should have kicked off her footwear too, for the only false note of the festival came from the New-Zealand diva, who, perched on  high-heeled shoes, hands clasped in front of her red brocade dress, sang a few ditties through tightly clenched teeth. It was only towards the end of a colourless programme that the magic of Verbier came to the fore, and she rose to meet it with three wonderful encores.

Last, but not least, the UBS Orchestra, that collection of gifted young musicians from around the world was sensational. After the majority of orchestras in France, who play for their supper and race through a score to get home to their bed, the sound of these talented youngsters, conducted in turn by Michael Tilson Thomas, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and by their founder conductor,  James Levine, is of an extraordinarily high level . They are so full of enthusiasm and play with their hearts.

"That this festival exists", commented Quasthoff, "is one of the most beautiful miracles in the world of music". Who could disagree?

 * Director and founder of the festival

** Measha Brueggergosman's first recording was released last year by C.B.C. and includes all-American composers including George Gershwin's arrangement for chamber orchestra. A current project is to record Massenet in the autumn, also with C.B.C.

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