Verbier Festival opens with Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano and Trumpet and Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony

The 28th Verbier Festival began last night with a concert featuring Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano and Trumpet paired with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.

Verbier whose video-on-demand service (via Medici.TV) is making all of the Festival available online for the 15th year, have a distinct advantage over other streaming platforms and arts organisations, capitalising this year on many years of technical and creative live-streaming experience.

This year’s opening concert from the Salle des Combins in Verbier produced by Idéale Audience was directed by Grammy Award-winning Jean-Pierre Loisil, had a far more intimate feel in terms of visual direction making more creative use of the myriad of the remote-controlled cameras that are dotted around the concert venue. In addition, the all-black TV studio interior of the auditorium created a highly focussed viewing experience too.

It may seem odd to start with the video production for a live stream concert, but it was this which was most immediate. After a year of live streams and YouTube Premieres of varying quality, this stream and its rich and detailed sound mix was a highly engaging watch, putting Verbier’s consistent and defining characteristic front and centre: the high calibre of performance.

The non-distanced orchestra and soloists play with such energy and attack in this performance, a reminder of what is lost with distanced playing. Contrast the fast-paced detailed articulation in the upper strings in the first movement with the delicate precision of the pianissimos in the final bars of the second movement. The string sequence at the beginning of the third movement has a depth to it I feel like I can almost touch as I listen.

The electricity is in full flow during the Prokofiev symphony. Lots of detail in individual lines – listen out for the break-neck articulation demanded in the woodwind throughout the four movement, and (my particular favourite) the seeming throwaway phrase in the violas. Elsewhere in the last movement, the upper strings are at their most fierce.

Perhaps finding this such an exhilerating watch shouldn’t really be quite as surprising as it is. The VFCO is made up of former members of Verbier’s training orchestra the Verbier Festival Orchestra – players who have gone on to perform with an impressive roster of the world’s most distinguished conductors and soloists.

Watch the Verbier Festival Opening Concert with Valery Gergiev, Denis Matsuev, Timur Martynov and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra.

Listen to Verbier Festival Director Martin Engstroem on the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast

Review: Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra play Weber Oberon Overture, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, and Mendelssohn ‘Scottish’

It’s all about the detail.

The first thing I note down as I listen to the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra play Weber’s Oberon Overture, is the detail.

The string sound is warm; the opening woodwind cue exquisite – there is a warbling quality to the overall texture which is irresistible. Sweetness follows in the uppers strings, and a delectable precision in the ensemble playing as a whole. This isn’t like anything I’ve heard in a long long time.

And perhaps with good reason. The Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra membership consists of Verbier Academy alumni all of whom now play in professional orchestras across the world.

Conductor Lahav Shani works the band hard, demanding all manner of intricate details and extreme dynamic contrasts. He coaxes and stirs in an understated way. At one point an almost imperceptible trumpet takes me by surprise. My pen goes down. I lean in.

Vadim Repin’s Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 is a remarkable marathon building to a cacophonous conclusion. There were moments in the first movement when it felt as though the ensemble was out ever so slightly with the soloist – the most marked example when horns and cello exchange phrases in the third movement.

That said, the range of string textures throughout was a thing to behold, so too the precision closing of phrases with beautifully placed chords. Balletic. As though we were gently laying our heads on a feather pillow.

The second movement has porcelain delicacy in the solo line, and a music box quality in the accompaniment. Repin’s honeyed vibrato hints at anguish in the vulnerability of the movement. The return of the opening subject towards the end triggers an emotional rush I wasn’t prepared for. Here too it’s obvious where the core strength in this woodwind section lays: in the rapport between flutes and clarinets – some gorgeous textures emerge from their dovetailed tones.

Lahav Shani

The thrills and spills of the first half realised by the VFCO’s dexterity and musicianship come to the fore in Shani’s thrilling direction of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

Dramatic dynamic contrast in the first movement exposed some melodic lines I’d not heard before. The virtuosic clarinet solo that opens the second movement was an obvious highlight, followed by blistering articulation in the horns and double basses later in the movement. A noble celli solo was made more of by reducing the dynamic range of the string players that usually engulf it. With these simple elements brought front and centre, the VFCO made this an enlightening interpretation.

The detail-oriented Shani transitioned from an operatic opening at the beginning of the third movement into something wholly balletic in a few short bars, deploying demonstrative hand gestures to create gentle ebbs and flows in the strings.