Name a pianist, and they were there. So was Peter Quantrill.
25 July, Salle des Combins, Verbier Festival, Switzerland
You know it’s going to be a concert out of the ordinary that kicks off with a Bach Brandenburg Concerto – No 3 – led by Pinchas Zukerman and Maxim Vengerov. With the second viola part taken by Nobuko Imai and Gérard Caussé. And the third violin line – the third! – by a line-up of Elisabeth Batiashvili, Renaud Capuçon and Leonidas Kavakos.
Yet the remarkable aspect of so much music-making that unfolded over the course of the next four and a half hours, in the Amazonian heat of the plastic-roofed Salle des Combins, was that the egos and talents of the musicians on display did not cancel each other out, as they can on such august occasions.
Credit for this must go largely to the festival’s founder and director, Martin T:Son Engstroem, who had persuaded some of its most celebrated and frequent guests to return and work with each other in new and original combinations. At the beginning of each half – well, third – he announced a taster for the repertoire to come while leaving the performers as a surprise, which duly prompted cries of surprise from the packed audience as one unlikely constellation of musical stars followed another.
Thus it was that the central, piano-centred part of the gala began with the garrulous Sonata for Two Pianos by Smetana, unlikely to be a repertoire work for any of Seong-Jin Cho, Yevgeny Kissin, Sir András Schiff or Yuja Wang. Schiff and Wang returned before long for two Slavonic Dances of Dvořák and proved to be better matched to each other than they had been to their respective partners in the Smetana.
Nevertheless, normal rules of engagement hardly apply to such an occasion. With rehearsal time at a premium, much of the music-making was done on the fly. Daniil Trifonov seemed understandably disconcerted by Mikhail Pletnev slowing to half speed for the first appearance of the tune in his own duet arrangement of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Wang and Denis Kozukhin nearly came off the rails in the Paganini Variations of Lutoslawski, though they brought down the house while doing so.
Among the most touching moments of the entire gala was a Romance for six hands by Rachmaninov, in which Kissin and Trifonov were joined on the lowest part by the composer Rodion Shchedrin, now 85 but still possessed of a luminous touch and apparently effortless legato. He was probably the most relaxed musician on stage all evening, though another elder statesman of the piano ran him close: Richard Goode, teaching Seong-Jin Cho a thing or two about playing Brahms in three Souvenirs de Russie.
This gluttonous feast of pianists nearly descended into farce at its close, with eight of them ready to play an arrangement of the William Tell Overture only to discover that two of them lacked the right score. Schiff and Pletnev had already decided to dispense with the music and appeared to make up their part as they went along. Schiff gave himself the last word with a spot of epic musical trolling. No one seemed to mind. They – and we – were probably just glad to get out of the hall for a draught of mountain air.
The concert is available to view here at medici.tv.
Photo: Left to right: Kissin, Wang, Cho, Schiff
© Nicolas Brodard