Last year's Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad brought to life a true "Week of the violin" where eight of the most promising musicians of the new generation rubbed shoulders and enriched each other. This winter, Artistic Director Renaud Capuçon will be bringing to the party a coachload of young cellists, rich in budding talent: Anastasia Kobekina, Julia Hagen, Bruno Philippe, Aurélien Pascal... Led by Daniel Müller-Schott, the doyen of young cellists, and bookended by their illustrious elders, here is a network of laden branches which should bear fruit and gladden the hearts of festivalgoers.

Renaud Capuçon and Daniel Lozakovich
Renaud Capuçon and Daniel Lozakovich

The indefatigable Capuçon, more entrepreneurial than ever, doesn't look like he will be getting a holiday. Now at the start of the 2017 winter, you can see him already negotiating future seasons. Coming out of a business breakfast, he confides that "Just now, I was with David Stern: we were discussing the programmes for 2020 and 2021". So far in advance? No doubt, it's necessary if one is trying to create one's programme without compromise. For now, the 18th edition of Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad will, as usual, bring together a variety of personalities. "My job as Artistic Director is to assemble musicians with very different outlooks, to offer the audience a highly varied bunch of artists: young ones who are still little known but are very soon about to become very much more so, big stars like Radu Lupu or Nelson Freire, and musicians from my generation like Nicholas Angelich." With its small team, the festival isn't attempting to build itself on a large scale: here's a place where quality trumps quantity. One is trying to see things from a different angle, particularly by the process of marrying different generations. Capuçon is clear about the merits of this approach. "There's no fixed age for music making, and we all learn from each other. You have to know how to gain from the experience of a hardened professional, or from the youth, nerve and energy of the young. It's from these blends that musical richness is born: if you shut yourself into your own age group, that's when weariness can set in. It's a matter of breaking routine, tearing up established usage!"

Daniel Müller-Schott
Daniel Müller-Schott

It comes as no shock to discover that the violinist has already gathered a great deal of experience in programming: he's been organising festivals since the age of 18. "It kind of happened by accident", he says, "I had no intention of formally creating a festival. I was coming back from Berlin and I met some friends at Chambéry who owned a 130 seat concert hall. We started getting together to make music and one thing led to another. At the time, there were only six of us, but gradually, things developed to the point that it became a festival with a dozen or so concerts, an audience that came from everywhere, and prestigious musicians." That's an experience that wouldn't have done Capuçon any harm, now that in Gstaad, he's in charge of arranging all the festivities and welcoming all these gentlefolk. The point is that at Sommets Musicaux, care is taken over the comfort of the guests. "When you're used to being on stage, you know perfectly well what a musician wants to avoid when he arrives at a festival. We know that he wants a warm welcome, to feel surrounded by friends, but without it being overdone. So that's why I give a lot of advice to the teams on site. Running a festival isn't just about accumulating headline acts, it's knowing how to welcome them and to be flexible in terms of their requests, while taking a hard line on certain principles. The fact that Capuçon is himself a musician as well as being Artistic Director, that he sits on both sides of the mirror, is also essential when choosing the performers: the cast list is based on personal experience rather than purely on renown. "At Sommets Musicaux, the programming has the peculiar feature of being deeply organic: I only programme works that I know, even ones that I've played, and most often with musicians with whom I have already shared a stage."

As usual, contemporary music hasn't been ignored. After Toshio Hsokawa last year, Capuçon has turned his attention to Benjamin Attahir: "this is a young composer under 30 years old whose music I heard for the first time in 2016. The discovery was a shock to the system. His language is immediately recognisable, which is rare for a composer that young. This is music which has great power; it penetrates immediately, gets under your skin, you absorb it. We're at the fringes of a very modern language – this is one of Boulez's last disciples – while at the same time showing exceptional imagination, influenced by the East. I'm delighted that he will be there." Partly because of Attahir, the young musicians in residence will be working on music of their own era. The target will be Après l'ineffable, a piece for piano and cello commissioned by the festival. "Benjamin will be working with the young musicians every day. The same piece will be played 8 times, and the best interpretation will win the André Hoffmann prize."

Benjamin Attahir
Benjamin Attahir

Another of the festival's awards is the Thierry Scherz prize, brought into being by the Fondation Pro Scientia et Arte and the Friends of Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad, which rewards one of the young hopefuls each year by giving them the chance to record a CD with an orchestra, under the Claves Records label. In this, the festival keeps faith with its mission as a prospector for young talent – a cause dear to Capuçon's heart, offering a media springboard to these artists who are often, at this point, still unknown. "If the audience appreciates you and trusts you as a musician, it will follow you as regards programming. Even if you invite musicians that people haven't heard of, the listeners know that they can go in blind, that there will always be something interesting."

On the starting blocks, eight cellists accompanied by their usual pianists. No noxious rivalry, but a festival of friendship and of dedication to living a common life. In all, no less than 20 happy young people will have the luxury of living for a week in the most sublime of musical getaways. It's an experience that promises to thrill: "They all have qualities specific to their own personalities, and the level of instrumental mastery is superb!", Capuçon enthuses. This year, France is the country best represented in terms of numbers of musicians in this unique breeding ground. Which makes sense, the way Capuçon explains it. "The French school of cello is the best in the world. If you consider the whole of the new generation, Gautier Capuçon's generation and the one before it, you can easily cite twenty French cellists of international stature. It's unique. Even in piano or violin, we've had some isolated instances, but never this kind of profusion of excellence." I noted the presence of Victor Julien-Laferriere, the young winner of the Queen Elisabeth Prize, currently being fought over by concert halls around the world. "He's a musician who is already fully formed," says Capuçon.

For Gstaad performances, the issue of accessibility never fails to rear its ugly head. Capuçon gives it short shrift. "I struggle with the public's idea about Gstaad. Tickets here aren't any more expensive than anywhere else. Everything is down to choice: if a young pianist absolutely wants to hear Radu Lupu, he will drive 100km or take a train, and sleep in a youth hostel if that's what's needed. The lucky ones can spend a bit longer with the musicians: in a sort of courtly interlude, the five concerts between 26th January and 3rd February will be succeeded by dinners at the Gstaad Palace. "It's a way of binding with the traditions of the place; we are in Gstaad, after all. It's part of what makes this rewarding, for those who want to extend the concert experience by dining with the artists."

Needless to say, the beauty and history of the place brings to its concerts that certain indefinable something that makes an ordinary evening into an unforgettable one. "Obviously, one plays differently in Gstaad, it's altogether different from giving a concert in Paris or London. Here, you're playing in a church lost in the mountains, in the midst of a snowy landscape: For those who can't be there but don't want to miss out on the festivities, there will be some broadcasts, although one can't honestly advise you other than to make the pilgrimage to Sannenland to hear this plethora of different talents. Surely, making everything sound in unison, while preserving the individuality of each, is the definition of chamber music – and, as Proust put it, "the originality of artists is one of the proofs of existence of the soul".

 

Click here for full listings of the festival programme. This article was sponsored by Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad. Translated from French by David Karlin.