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Viva Verbier

Michael Church

rainbow 300x170 Viva Verbier As the only begetter of the Verbier Festival – unquestionably the starriest event in the classical calendar – Martin Engstroem has always lived dangerously. His initial idea was simply to combine partying and performances on top of a mountain, but being artistic boss of Deutsche Grammophon meant he had a stunning roster of talent to call on. Thus it was that Martha Argerich and her Russian (and Russian-Jewish) friends – Mischa Maisky, Gidon Kremer, Vadimn Repin, Maxim Vengerov, and Evgeny Kissin – came to form the artistic nucleus for a dazzling annual blitz.

But Engstroem’s vision went way behind the usual ‘preserve of the rich’ festival stereotype (though there are a lot of rich people in Verbier). He induced his stars to take artistic risks, using Verbier as a laboratory rather than a mere showcase. He created a youth orchestra drawn from every corner of the globe, and decreed that master-classes should take place in venues around town from dawn till dusk, and that these should be open to all, free of charge. He invited jazz groups to serenade the public in the central square each afternoon; he established an amateur week; he created a link with Medici Arts so that the main events could be streamed live on the internet. And somehow the figures added up.

Well, they did until 2007, when the mighty UBS abruptly pulled the plug on their £3m annual sponsorship of the festival’s youth orchestra. They then announced that they would not renew their contract with the festival as a whole. The orchestra had visited 33 countries in its eight years of existence, and UBS had vigorously capitalised on it, using it as a marketing tool to garner masses of eco-friendly publicity. Luckily for Engstroem, the international press picked up on the story, and the wind of opinion blew in his favour. He decided to split his funding requirements four ways, soliciting equal sums from the commune, the canton, big foundations, and private donors – and amazingly he got it all, with long-term commitments, just before the global crash changed the game utterly. Engstroem was also lucky in that politicians in this part of the Valais were starting to look for ways to raise their region’s profile: an orchestra would make a great ambassador. Meanwhile Rolex gladly moved in as presenting sponsor. Since then the figures have worked as hoped.

This year’s threat looked like coming from the unprecedentedly strong Swiss franc. ‘I really thought that would dent our ticket sales,’ says Engstroem. ‘But it hasn’t at all – they are 10 per cent up on last year. And I can’t put my finger on why, apart from the fact that for the first time we’ve staged the Bejart ballet. People seem to be keener than ever on travelling long distances to hear good music. It will be interesting to hear how Bayreuth and Salzburg and Aix en Provence have fared – I suspect they may be up as well.’

Last week the sun didn’t shine much, and the rain pounded so heavily on the tented auditorium that one of Evgeny Kissin’s encores could hardly be heard, though he’d demonstrated by then – with a series of Liszt rarities – that after twenty gruelling years in the limelight he’s still pianism’s undisputed numero uno. The previous night, Martha Argerich – having now vacated that position in favour of chamber music – first accompanied Renaud Capucon, then Yuri Bashmet, then her brilliant young Argentinian compatriot Nelson Goerner: she may be seventy, but her dynamism still takes the breath away.

Some years it’s fiddlers or cellists: this was the pianists’ year. Stephen Hough, as leader of the British pack, played some exemplary Beethoven and Liszt, and gave an airing to his marmoreal ‘Broken Branches’ sonata, rippling with implicit references to Mompou, Debussy, and Scriabine. Meanwhile Llyr Williams brought out his no less impressive Beethoven, before joining forces with his Welsh compatriot Bryn Terfel for Schubert, Schumann, Ibert, and Quilter, plus a a series of practical-joke encores. Williams is a quiet mover, but very much a man to watch: a major virtuoso with the humility to double as the subtlest of accompanists.

The other star of the first week was the 23-year-old Georgian firebrand Khatia Buniatishvili, whose history with Verbier goes way back. She first came as a teenager to listen, then found herself playing orchestral piano as a stand-in, and is now, as Engstroem puts it, ‘like a flower who has opened’ – but a flower who takes risks. She played Rach Three in a highly personal but rivetingly expressive way, backed by the youth orchestra under the baton of Neeme Jarvi (standing in for a sick Charles Dutoit at 24 hours’ notice, after being discovered holidaying in a neighbouring valley – there’s no escaping the long arm of the Engstroem). Those within reach of London’s Cadogan Hall on August 8 – or able to listen to her live on Radio 3 – will hear her now-celebrated account of Liszt’s B minor sonata.

The only frustration of Verbier is that you can’t go to everything. People were constantly talking about the revelatory Baroque master-classes by Masaaki Suzuki, whose creation of a Bach super-choir with Japanese singers is one of the less predictable marvels of the musical world. Meanwhile word has it that the 16-year-old Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki is another man to watch, as is the intriguingly-named Louis Schwizgebel-Wang. And talking of Wangs, this week in Verbier will be dominated by the Chinese whirlwind Yuja Wang, an Engstroem discovery whose demure pin-up looks belie a unique amalgam of artistic refinement and ferocious virtuosity (Lang Lang couldn’t hold a candle to her). Once more, Londoners and Radio 3 listeners will get another bite at the cherry, since Yuja will play a Prom on August 16. But if you’re holidaying anywhere in the Valais region this week, Verbier vaut le voyage.

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