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FESTIVAL DIARY

VERBIER FESTIVAL AND ACADEMY

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

VERBIER, SWITZERLAND, 17 August 2006—With an ambitious programme of 46 concerts over a 17-day period, there were moments of magic and surprises at this year's Verbier Festival and Academy, but these did not always come where expected. Programmes put together at the last minute were the ones that caused the most excitement, and whereas discoveries have been part of Martin Engstroem's policy for several years now, not even he could have foreseen the complicity that sprung up between the British trumpeter, Cameron Todd,  super-star pianist Evgeny Kissin, and the charismatic Italian conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, who arrived, "en catastrophe" as the French say, to replace Yuri Temirkanov, and who had to be driven straight back to Italy after the concert.

The overture, Guiseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino, magnificently interpreted by the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, followed by Evgeny Kissin's sumptuous rendering of Schumann's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor op. 54, both conducted by Noseda, set the tone for the evening.

Noseda, conductor of the B.B.C. Philharmonic, was the first non-Russian to have been appointed chief guest conductor of the Mariinsky of Saint-Petersburg, and the fact he has made Russian music his speciality was immediately apparent in the two Shostakovitch pieces which formed the second part of the concert  The Russian composer's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra was stupendous, with an  appreciative audience dancing up and down on its feet, stamping and roaring its approval. Noseda's work, over just two to three days with the  talented UBS Verbier Orchestra, was astounding. This was a hard act to follow.

 A theatrical Misha Maisky, complete with flashing diamond pendant, was last on the programme. His mane of shoulder-length flamboyant white curls, which he shook all which ways through his piece, and his little white, grey and black beard, combed in vertical stripes to match his silken top-coat,  distracted from his music. Shostakovitch's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No 1 in E Flat Major op. 107, a difficult piece at the best of times, was a bit of a let-down.
 
However, a tribute to the centenary of Shostakovitch's birth, September 1906, was given the following day with an afternoon of reminiscences by Rodion Shchedrin, Russia's most important living composer. Accompanied by his wife, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, he spoke of the man he had known since the age of 9; his father had been the composer's secretary.

"Shostakovitch became a world-renowned figure after writing his first symphony at 19, and was both privileged and successful until 1936", Shchedrin said. "Then, although many of his family members were imprisoned or shot, plus anyone who knew them, he was left alone in his flat, but from 1942, he again enjoyed tremendous popularity, dividing his life  between composing and playing the piano. He was never sent to the goulag as rumour has it."

"One day we were driving along together in the car when he turned to me and said, 'I've just written a new opera'. He'd composed it in his head. But he'd been thinking about it for a very long time. He would write incredibly quickly, never in pencil, always in ink. He was my God. I think it's true to say, too, that the restrictions imposed on us stimulated our creativity; it's harder when you have complete freedom."

"Composing", Shchedrin continued, "is 10% talent and 90% work. It's putting thoughts down in a disciplined way, but composers in Russia have a far more difficult life now. Before, musicians were state-sponsored; Shostakovitch's gifts were recognised and all his works were performed in his lifetime. Now, there are many interesting composers in Saint Petersburg where I teach, but there is no money to perform new works. Nobody can pay the orchestra or the conductor or hire a place to play in."

Unfortunately, Schedrin's Carmen Suite after Bizet, his re-arrangement of airs from Carmen, and programmed at Verbier had to be cancelled. It was a work that he had begun for his wife in a rehearsal room on the fifth floor of the Bolshoi theatre while she was working out the steps of the ballet with Cuban choreographer, Alberto Alonso and completed in his own kitchen the following day while she demonstrated the steps to him, a piece of chicken in her mouth. It seemed particularly sad that it should have been through lack of a conductor that we were prevented from hearing it. 

Disappointing as it was, it left several possibilities open, including a hop across the mountains to St. Moritz where the Canadian violinist, Corey Cerovsek was giving a recital, going to the church where the German pianist, Martin Stadtfeld, was playing Mozart and Schubert, or, for those who already had tickets, attend Vadim Repin's concert of Edouard Lalo followed by the alternative programme of the UBS Verbier Orchestra playing Schubert conducted by Paavo Jarvi. Which brings us then to the major "downfall" of this extraordinary festival... the difficulty of choosing when there are two or three wonderful concerts programmed simultaneously!

Already, many people were worrying about whether they could listen to José Van Dam and Barbara Hendricks on the following night and then abandon pianist Emanuel Ax to run down to the church to catch up with Fazil Say!


Many opted to see Stadtfeld, who had already appeared the previous evening with Thomas Quasthoff in his Carte Blanche evening. If Quasthoff's jazz programme entertained the crowds, with showy demonstrations of the range of his voice and jockey impressions of Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, then it was the beauty and pureness of the Mahler lieders written after his unhappy love-affair with Johanna Richter, which the audience carried away with them, due in great part to the quality of the accompaniment. It was no mean feat to gather together such prestigious musicians as Corey Cerovsek, Blythe Teh and Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Frans Helmerson, Leigh Mesh, Sharon Bezaly, Aleksander Tasic and Gabriel Kahane, as well as Stadtfeld. Quasthoff sang of Mahler's feelings of alienation, despair, pain and resignation and of the comfort that comes at the end. It was very moving.


Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Corey Cerovsek and Blythe Teh
Photo: Marc Shapiro

Stadtfeld, now 25, has rapidly become a favourite of the Festival since he replaced Martha Argerich at a week's notice two years ago. He told me about the telephone call he had received a week before the concert asking him to play a Bach keyboard concerto.

"I went out to buy the music and learnt the piece in 3 or 4 days", the tall, shy, slender pianist told me. "It was quite a success", he added, "and since then I've come back each year to give recitals and play chamber music.

Martin Stadtfeld, who was born in Coblence and started playing the piano when he was six, studied in Frankfurt with the Russian-born teacher, Lev Natochenny with whom he has worked for the past eleven years.

"My parents  went out and bought me a piano", he said. "My father is a vet and neither of my parents played an instrument so there was never any plan for me to make music my career. I grew up stress-free".

"Bach is my great love", he continued. "My first recording in 2003 was of the Goldberg Variations, and was followed by a recording entitled Bach Pur. But now I do play other composers!"


Martin Stadtfeld
Photo: Marc Shapiro

Which he did in Verbier, giving a recital of two Mozart sonatas, which flowed from him naturally with an incredible lightness of touch, followed by Schubert's Piano Sonata in B Flat Major D 960. His expressive playing was full of delicacy, finesse and elegance. When the music stopped, the magic was broken; the room seemed suddenly empty and many of those present, even in rehearsals, had tears in their eyes as they left.

"I really enjoy being here", he told me. "It's so small that you bump into everyone all the time, and I enjoy working with other musicians too. It was quite an experience working with Quasthoff," he added enigmatically, an experience that less mature musicians were to find quite alarming....

Photo above: Rodion Shchedrin
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro



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