Thoroughly Good on Bachtrack: Attentive listening at altitude

I’ve been ‘moonlighting’ on Bachtrack, taking some time to reflect on my recent trip to Verbier.

There’s an element of reminiscence about the piece, I should confess. London teems with distractions the way Verbier insisted they were discarded at the bottom of the mountain. My return prompted me to wonder what strategies we need to employ to optimise our listening in the urban environment.

Read the article on Bachtrack.

Reviews, even more reflections and a podcast interview with the Verbier Festival Academy boss Christian Thompson is available here.

10 things I learnt at the Verbier Festival

1. Not being defined by your employer’s name is as much a holiday as spending two weeks on a far-flung beach in the blazing sunshine.

2. You need to know your music inside out if you’re to succeed as a performer, an administrator, or a classical music journalist.

3. Proximity is everything. The more unfamiliar the work, the closer to the performers you need to be. That way it will feel as though you’re listening from inside the music itself. If you’re emotional core isn’t touched then, you’re a cold-hearted unsalvageable bastard.

4. The audience is as important as the musicians in creating a moment to savour. Musicians engage in a conversation with their audience. That’s why musicians need us there. Concert-going isn’t a passive process. A nineteen-year-old told me that.

5. Depressive states aren’t only to be found during periods of prolonged stress or anxiety. There’s a discernible route back to them even in moments of ecstasy. Depression is something which exists in a variety of emotional experiences, good or bad.

6. If you’re listening attentively, chamber music is intense. Sometimes you need to doze after it.

7. Verbier’s Salle des Combins is a ten minute walk away from the centre of town if you’re in a hurry. Leave 20 minutes or maybe even half an hour if you want to avoid the shirt on your back looking like a sodden rag.

8. Young talented musicians face difficult choices very early on in life. Sometimes those choices are made for them, but for a handful for reach dizzying heights of technical ability and musical expression, sacrifices need to be made.

9. Be warned, the seat numbering system in Verbier’s church is counter-intuitive. It defies detailed description. Factor in extra time before a concert to ensure you’re sitting in the right seat, or be prepared for an exchange in French when someone else discovers you’re sitting in their seat.

10. There is no such thing as a shortcut in Verbier. What you think you might save in time you end up paying for on the calves and the inner thigh.

Listen to Christian Thompson from the Verbier Festival Academy explain how the residential training programme is developing the next generation of exceptional young musicians.

Thoroughly Good Podcast 3.10: Verbier Festival Academy

Christian Thompson is Director of the Verbier Festival Academy – a residential training programme for exceptional young musicians.

In this podcast, recorded during my visit to the Verbier Festival in August 2016, Christian explains his vision for the Academy and its participants, and how the programme is developing the next generation of soloists.

The music featured in this podcast is the opening movement from Brahms’ first piano quartet, captured during rehearsals.

Listen via Audioboom, via download, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes. Previous episodes available here

© Aline Paley

Verbier 2016: Beethoven String Quartet Op.130 and Brahms Clarinet Quintet

The Quatuor Ebene gave a dazzling performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major op.130 earlier this evening at the Eglise in Verbier. It was a monumental achievement.

Written a year before his death, Beethoven’s op.130 is a complex work taking the uninitiated on a long and sometimes arduous journey from youthful exuberance and passion, through intense loss, and ultimately into grief-fuelled mania. There is hope at the end of the phenomenally demanding finale (we heard all six movements of the original edition), but there isn’t a sense of lasting stability.

Quatuor Ebene’s committed performance throughout was what hooked me in. An electrifying presto and playful andante provided light relief amid the tempest and exuberance elsewhere. The childlike theme treated to a swift series of variations entertained but they also threatened with a dark edge.

The players shone throughout, each with a distinct personality but no one individual dominating. The chemistry between viola player and cellist was especially touching. It was the finale where they really showed their metal, intertwined with the unrelenting descent into mania and beyond, right until the end. They displayed great stamina and rose to the challenge presented by this profoundly moving score.

After the brutality of the Beethoven, clarinettist Martin Frost’s warm tone in Brahms clarinet quintet cushioned us. The lilting sweet melody in the opening allegretto did the rest.

The quintet – sensitively programme as an antidote to what had gone before – may have been a musical escape within slightly-easier-to-handle boundaries, but the group never lost the necessary urgency the work demands of its interpreters.

The second movement adagio was a ravishing serenade that strayed into near operative territory with pseudo-recitatives over which the clarinet soared with grand statements. The movement’s conclusion was exquisite.

Frost is a phenomenal instrumentalist. His fluid lines, rich, rounded tone, and effortless articulation are a joy to behold. Watching him reminds me of the difficulties I experienced trying to achieve the same – I failed dismally.

But his partnership with Quatuor Ebene made for a delicious experience, transporting those of left in tatters after the Beethoven to a place where we could at least see a beacon of hope shining brightly somewhere in front of us.

All images © Aline Paley

Verbier 2016: Bartok, Brahms and Schubert

If you want an introduction to chamber music and get a flavour of just how rewarding it can be, the Verbier Festival should be on your list.

Performances here are the product of the community spirit that underpins the Festival. The concerts are collaborations between friends whose mastery of their instrument comes in a close second to an unequivocal passion for their art.

The spirit which emanated from the stage sets the bar high: this is what the music was written for, anything less than what you see here probably isn’t worth listening to.

In Bartok’s Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano opened the programme; clarinettist Martin Frost coerced, taunted, and cajoled with a sometimes devilish balletic presence. The menacing first movement gave way to a plaintiff second featuring an exquisitely sweet high melody from violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The third and final contrast brought things to a spectacular end, violin and clarinet locked into a frenzied battle to the end. Frost’s breathing is remarkable in fast sequences like those in the last movement, so too his fluid finger work.

The Brahms Trio saw violin Kavakos come to the fore – a dramatic contrast with the Bartok before it – playing with a tone so evenly matched with his counterpart Gautier Capucon (cello) that the difference between the two instruments was imperceptible. Capucon is a remarkable force on stage: a brilliant cellist whose technique is flawless, and range utterly enthralling.


Kavakos is humble and self-effacing, but Capucon still takes care not to let personality get in the way of the instrument’s voice. As a result, the immediacy of their music-making transports the audience quickly to a higher plane. A sublime first movement was followed y a delicate playful second movement with some heart-warming connections between cello and pianist Yuja Wang.

And while the fourth movement was suitably conclusive, the notable moment was during the remarkably still third in which all the instrumentalists on stage pulled the audience in further with the quietest sound created by the smallest gestures.

Pianist Yuja Wang had her moment with Schubert’s Piano Quintet Op. 44, in what had surely, by then, been a demanding programme. Kavakos, Wang and Capucon were joined on stage, by violinist Roman Simovic and viola player Blythe Teh Engstroem.

Between them produced moments of great warmth, spirit, and precision. They worked closely together, exchanging glances and infectious smiles. The third movement was so good, the audience continued to clap at the end of the concert until the group sat down and played it again.

All images are the copyright of Aline Paley