Festival & Academy Verbier – July 2017
Wednesday October 18th, 2017
It was certainly the most incredible experience of my life, for the sheer quantity and quality of stimuli, sensations, emotions and thoughts that I experienced and processed in those three weeks. It is practically impossible to summarize it in a post. I will try as best I can to describe the most important aspects. 1) The quantity and quality of the concerts I attended: Never before had I heard such an amount of live music as in those weeks; in 20 days I heard about 40 concerts, that makes a clean average of two concerts per day, but with high points of four and the very odd day with none. I had the good fortune to hear great musicians such as Pletnev, Kissin, Maisky, Jansen for the first time and the pleasure of hearing such pillars as Sokolov, Lugansky and Schiff once again. There were plenty of young talents too, Lucas Debargue is one that stood out particularly, his concert really impressed me. Of course, there was also plenty of orchestral music and opera as well: I worked backstage (what stress!!!) collaborating with the surtitles of Tchaikovsky's opera Evgeny Onegin. I have to say it was an immense honour to follow that sublime music with score in hand and to be in some way a party to the event. Aside from this, I also attended (in the audience this time) two Strauss operas that I adore: Salomé and Elektra. To use an effective euphemism, I could say it was a visceral experience. 2) Lessons with great masters: this was the principal objective of the Academy, and it gave me plenty of food for thought, raising some (new) doubts, and confirming various certainties. I attended lessons with Richard Goode, Ferenc Rados, Klaus Hellwig, Sergey Babayan, Gabor Takacs-Nagy and Pamela Frank. I will give a short account of those that struck me most, in other words, Babayan, Rados and Goode.
Visions from unknown worlds
Together with Babayan I worked on Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, a piece that suits me particularly well, indeed he already seemed quite satisfied when I first played it. But then a world opened up, perhaps it would be better to call it a chasm. He tried as much as possible to make me feel “absolutely free” with my body, more, no, no, more and more… differently. “You have to feel as if instead of your hands you had bear paws, as if you were unleashing a lost primeval energy hidden inside you”. These words shook my perception of the sonata even from the first chords. I suddenly felt that there was no limit to the quality of sound I could produce, and that everything was aimed at creating a “fire and iron” effect that is perfectly in keeping with the opening of this piece. It is not just a matter of playing loud and assaulting the keyboard, indeed this would take us away from our objective, it is a question of quaking the depths of the listener’s soul, the sound quality is fundamental (processes of sound diplomacy, which have become very popular in recent years, would be useless here), but it is first and foremost the type of sound created that moves the spirit of both the performer and audience. In essence, less rationality (though there is rationality, there has to be), and an attempt to uncover an atavistic id, buried somewhere in the incomplete….
Naturally, it wasn’t just poetry and mysticism, there was great knowledge and ability, but this was perhaps the most revolutionary and significant aspect of the hour I spent with him and I hope I have conveyed this as effectively as can possibly be done in words.
Meter reigns supreme
With Rados, instead, we worked on Bach’s 3rd French Suite in B minor. Perhaps still under the influence of Babayan’s impressive personality, I tried to mystify almost everything: the initial Allemande was almost a visionary prelude, the Courante followed in a noble but altogether ecstatic character, the Sarabande was a transfigured swan song, meditative and poetic (in my head, after all, this Suite was the last of the series in a minor key, and thus had signify an end…) and so on, I think I’ve conveyed the idea…
As soon as I had finish playing he looked at me, smiling, and asked if he might be allowed to “be dangerous”. I knew him from before and I always admired his sense of humour and sarcasm, so I burst out laughing, nodding naively. What did he mean?
He started by explaining that there was a lot of everything in my performance, perhaps a little too much; but it lacked one fundamental thing: the feeling that it was dance. Yes, because that’s what it is about, the suite is nothing but a collection of dances from different traditions, different countries, and every dance has its own rules, customs, and especially its own beat. This was the fundamental point of contact between Rados and Bach’s Third French Suite, the idea that the music of the great master of Leipzig, its agogic, dynamics, sound, everything was regulated by a set of metric relations, between beats and bars, strong and weak pulses, between one phrase and the next, an appoggiatura and its relative resolution.
His vision brought with it an almost ethical, aesthetic and ONTOLOGICAL (it’s a big word that I really like, basically it means the “essence” of one thing or another etc.) consequences, and that certain things can NOT be done, for whatever reason: the first beat has a certain weight, while the second one has less; but in the 18th century minuet the second and sixth beats tend to be somewhat accented; and here the harmonic resolution calls for a certain relaxation etc. etc. It seemed as if everything had to be done that way and in no other way – it was necessary.
I should point out that during the whole lesson I was only allowed play the soprano with the right hand (he never dared to call it a melody, so as to avoid inappropriate references to song, the prankster!) while he improvised the accompaniment in the bass, everything on the one piano. Needless to say, it was a memorable experience to say the least, it was indeed wonderful. Had I understood nothing at all (which is possible), I would have been very happy in any case, just thanks to the fact that I was able to be not only a witness but also a participant in this musical event, in which a slightly hesitant but willing soprano was accompanied by a Baroque orchestra, in a Brandenburg-like concerto, in which each instrument knew exactly how to be in the right place at the right time, with a fairly strong taste for the grotesque and the gothic.
The beauty of diversity.
With Goode I worked on Schumann’s Kreisleriana, another masterpiece that I particularly love (and in September 2017 my CD will be released => go buy it straight away : D). Within the first minutes Goode came across as a completely different personality: kind, genuine, very passionate, sometimes even wonderfully childish. From the outset his approach solely and exclusively addressed the composer’s wishes; nothing related to a cumbersome ego who knows everything and asks nothing. On the contrary, even the most particular decisions were undertaken, with the most astute observation, according to the composer’s will, rediscovering a sense of beauty even in things that apparently could only seem strange, casual and asymmetric. It was, in some ways, a cathartic process.