The angels were with us tonight. With the stunning chocolate-box backdrop of the Alps surrounding this most convivial of settings for two weeks of musical treats, the Verbier Festival continued its silver anniversary celebrations with Berg’s concerto “To the memory of an angel” and Mahler’s conjuring of a child’s vision of heaven. The Verbier way is to bring musicians between the ages of 18 and 28 together to form the Verbier Festival Orchestra, and marry them up with world-class artists to perform works of stature. So, with soprano Ying Fang, seasoned violinist Leonidas Kavakos and the masterful Christoph Eschenbach holding the baton, this was mission accomplished.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

Alban Berg’s last completed work, his Violin Concerto, had Kavakos joining Eschenbach in a performance of largely subdued reflection, although this did heighten the impact of the sudden waves of disturbed dialogue and tortured emotions when they emerged. Kavakos struck a rich and lyrical tone for this piece, with a particularly wonderful upper register, a critical quality for the end of the concerto. Eschenbach shaped the piece alongside Kavakos’ searching narrative, with the orchestra playing an equal part, all sections coming to the fore at key moments.

The second part of the concerto in particular demonstrated exceptional playing from Kavakos, with Eschenbach providing sensitive support and the orchestra displaying clarity of definition with occasional punctilious outbursts and an overall lustrous sheen. Kavakos shone in this piece, after a seemingly inauspicious beginning, with unsettling elements of despair played with vigour and gutsy sweeping gestures lapsing into resignation, finally culminating in ultimate transfiguration with his singing lines soaring through the air. The performance was polished and the playing impeccable, but the only slight niggle was just a question of balance, with not too much contrast in the dynamics, although this was more to do with the performing space than the performers. 

All doubts and niggles fell away completely in the second half. Eschenbach took the orchestra through Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major with panache, enthusiasm and eagle-eyed attention to detail. The orchestra was exceptional throughout, playing at times as if their lives depended on it. Eschenbach guided skilfully along Mahler’s journey from the complexity of earthly life to the simplicity of heaven, with the song Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life) forming the last movement and the ultimate goal of the previous three. 

Christoph Eschenbach © Luca Piva
Christoph Eschenbach
© Luca Piva

From the opening sleigh bells and piping flutes leading to the first “childishly simple” melody, it was not long before the calibre of the orchestra became apparent. Eschenbach navigated each passage of the large-scale first movement with great care and clear direction, providing encouraging gestures and expressions along the way. The string section played with an impressive depth of texture that alternated between sharpness and rich Swiss chocolate, and the wonderfully balanced winds were precise, flowing and full of character. The full effect of the superb brass was heard throughout the symphony, with particularly fine horn and trumpet solos, and the percussion section was impressively attentive. 

The orchestra’s leader executed his own solos with consummate skill, not least when using his harsh “Devil’s fiddle” in the demonic second movement, with inquisitive and pointed winds and solo horn also giving this particular movement its distinctive flavour. The variations in the Ruhevoll third movement were luscious, passionate, sorrowful and joyful, with the gorgeous string sound setting the pace, followed eventually by the full orchestra in all its resplendent glory. The real feather in the cap was soprano Ying Fang’s lucid rendition of Das himmlische Leben. Perfectly suited to this piece, Fang’s tone was pure and unforced, as she presented the child’s vision of heaven with effortless personality and a charming, reverent simplicity. I have rarely heard this sung better.

This was a performance to be reckoned with, well controlled and shaped, enthusiastically and superbly played, and when Fang reached the phrase “The angelic voices arouse the senses so that everything awakens with joy”, this just about captured its essence.

Mark's press trip was funded by the Verbier Festival