One of the central themes of the Verbier experience these past 20 years, the ‘rencontres inédites’, where soloists get to play chamber music with each other in a friendly atmosphere, was writ large on 28 July.
Some 30 musicians, many of them household names, came together in various configurations for a three-hour gala concert of chamber music. It included musicians who have maintained an involvement since the very first Verbier Festival in 1994, such as Evgeny Kissin, Mischa Maisky, Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Yuri Bashmet. Others, meanwhile, like the brothers Gautier and Renaud Capuçon, began their association with Verbier as students and have returned regularly as their professional careers flourish.
A highlight of the first half was the first movement of Schumann’s piano quintet, performed by Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Gábor Takács-Nagy, Antoine Tamestit and Gautier Capuçon. If that ensemble was not illustrious enough already, Alfred Brendel joined them on stage to turn pages at the piano.
The concert took place in the now three-year-old semi-permanent Salle des Combins, with every one of its 1,700 seats sold. The programme had been kept a secret so the audience did not know what to expect when after the interval the stage had been separated in two, with a piano in each half. The hosts, French journalist Laurence Ferrari and long-time Verbier tutor Thomas Quastoff, explained: a rather unusual performance of Chopin’s 24 preludes would follow, with each one played by a different pianist or arranged for a combination of instruments. Yuja Wang kicked things off on her own with the 30-second long C major prelude, before the lights dimmed on her piano and came up on the other half of the stage, to reveal Yuri Bashmet and Nicholas Angelich, who played an arrangement of the A minor. The alternation continued, with Ilya Gringolts and Lera Auerbach taking No 3, and Martin Fröst joining Julien Quentin for No 4. Mikhail Pletnev, Daniil Trifonov, the 89-year-old Menahem Pressler, Emanuel Ax, Lera Auerbach and Evgeny Kissin each took solo turns, while the Ebène Quartet was joined by double bassist Leigh Mesh for a very effective performance of the ‘Teardrop’ prelude.
In all the event offered a very memorable celebratory atmosphere as well as a potent reminder of the sheer class of the musical family festival which director Martin Engstroem has put together over the years.