Picture a landscape as arid as it is austere, alternating between periods of bright sunshine and overcast skies carrying clouds from Veneto to the Austrian Alps. Perched at an altitude of 2,500 metres, the Pale di San Martino mountain range in the Dolomites – with its vertical cliff faces and series of steeples that look like dilapidated towers – offers a stunningly beautiful setting that obeys none of the rules that usually govern classical concerts. On the slopes of the high plains that form a natural amphitheatre, with the Rifugio Rosetta above, the spectators take seat on a stony ground strewn with climbing sticks, with only the programme reminding them what they are about to witness: Mischa Maisky has taken up the challenge of playing two cello suites by Bach in these exceptional conditions.

Rifugio Rosetta - Pale di San Martino © Pio Geminiani | Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.
Rifugio Rosetta - Pale di San Martino
© Pio Geminiani | Fototeca Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.

It is a risky undertaking, because this limitless, open space offers no scope for reverberation. The sound is stripped down to its most raw expression and vanishes almost instantly. Changing weather conditions add to the difficulty with significant temperature differences affecting the instrument’s tuning. So it is not surprising that Mischa Maisky takes a little while to find his footing in the concert. We see him struggling at first, not with any technical difficulties, but rather with the challenges presented by an unyielding acoustic space which is difficult for the artist to inhabit and create different acoustic layers. Deprived of the usual comfort of concert halls which are acoustically- designed to favour the rich resonance of the cello, Maisky attacks the Prelude with tentative, staccato strokes, which seem to thrust forth into the emptiness against an unforgiving adversary. The heightened tempo of the Courante turns out to be a double-edged sword: while its velocity helps to give momentum to the piece while compensating artificially for the sound dispersion of the space, the melodic lines lose considerably in suppleness. Throughout the Suite N° 3 in D Major, Mischa Maisky seems to be looking for the right stroke, the familiar echo. It is only slowly and progressively that the musician finds his ground in this inflexible acoustic space, as the final Gigue shows signs of an ease that was absent from the preceding dances.

The second section is quite a different experience. One can finally sense the cellist let go, no longer battling the environment but becoming one with it. The landscape’s spirit resonates with the artist and is brought to life through his cello. He plays Suite No. 5 with a stately dignity shared by the colossal mountains that surround the stage. Without any excess, the soloist illustrates the aristocratically-restrained yet aching nostalgia of its harmonies, moving swiftly along the grand architecture of the piece as it escalates and builds momentum. The stately tempo of the Prelude does justice to its polyphonic passages. The cellist emphasizes the bass notes in the melody to give it a solid, earthy foundation. The Allemande is solemn and elegant as Maisky moulds its dotted rythms with regular strokes. The artist plays with great confidence and liberty while eschewing any overt affectation. The stark, inhospitable setting does not allow for any flamboyant histrionics; here, the artist is alone with his instrument, and his music traces a path to spiritual upliftment. Indeed, Maisky’s Sarabande displays the introspective gravitas of a memento mori with its descending arpeggios that mirror the relentlessness of the vertiginous peaks nearby.

The magic of the I suoni delle Dolomiti festival resides precisely in this capacity to reveal an almost spiritual connection between the music and the rocky peaks of eastern Trentino. Even in its most abstract conception, the musical experience remains the combination of various elements: the musician, the listener, the piece, but also the environment. In such an exceptional setting, the experience is quite simply out of the ordinary.

Translated from French by Amruta Prabhu