Since childhood, my three most enduring passions have been music, skiing and food. So when the organiser of Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad, Thierry Scherz, asked me to spend a few days reviewing the festival - three nights of concerts with top class performers, dining with the artists in the uber-posh Gstaad Palace and two days of skiing in some of the loveliest scenery in Switzerland, it was, to misquote Hamlet, an invitation devoutly to be wished. OK, there was a fair chunk of writing to do, but how much better could life get?

Gstaad Chapel © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Gstaad Chapel
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

I won’t go through the music in detail in this posting - there’s a substantial review of each concert on the review pages. But here are a few random thoughts on the festival as a whole.

Music festivals are generally an international affair. But Gstaad is a veritable Tower of Babel. When you meet someone, the first requirement is that you make a decision as to which language to try - and there are so many bilingual and multilingual people here that starting with the language you’ve heard them speak last isn’t necessarily the right answer. It’s a glorious jumble, partly resulting from the fact that Gstaad lies exactly on the cantonal border. Of the festival locations, Gstaad itself and Saanen are in the German-speaking Bern canton, while Rougemont, the next village down the valley, is in French-speaking Vaud. I have no idea how the hotel staff manage to get it right as often as they do.

The next notable thing about Sommets Musicaux is the acoustics in the churches. I’m used to a simple understanding of church acoustics: choral music sounds lovely with all that reverberation, everything else turns to mush. Saanen church is the diametric opposite of what I would expect: every note is remarkably clear. I’d love to know why it works so well - the architects in 1604 didn’t leave a record of their design decisions. The features obvious to the eye are rendered walls, a great deal of softwood panelling on the ceilings and around the gallery, plus the fact that the music is played from a space behind where the altar would be with a much lower ceiling than the main nave where the audience sits, but I have no idea which of those things makes the critical difference.

As with many festivals, Sommets Musicaux has an endearing emphasis on young performers, with the series of afternoon concerts in Gstaad chapel constituting a wonderful platform. The evening dinners provide an opportunity to meet these young artists and find out what makes them tick, as well as the long-suffering mothers who accompany them around the world. You also meet many of the principal artists, organisers and sponsors of the festival in the very upmarket surroundings of the Salle Baccarat at the Gstaad Palace: Gstaad is a community of the well-heeled, and the various festivals draw on the goodwill of some very wealthy residents, some of whom are highly cultured and take a serious interest. An attempt is currently being made to raise funds for a permanent concert hall to replace the tent used for the Menuhin Festival in summer, which raises some interesting questions: as one resident pointed out to me, what would such a concert hall do for the rest of the year?

I realise this is a music blog, but I have to give a mention to the skiing. Gstaad isn’t really a ski resort, more a large village (or small town, if you prefer) which happens to have skiing. This has its disadvantages and its attractions. On the one hand, the ski area is fairly disjointed and there’s a lot of shuttling around on ski buses. On the other hand, Gstaad has celebratedly short lift queues; also, on the two days I skied, temperatures were down to a highly unusual -14°C so I had the slopes nearly to myself. There aren’t many runs but they’re extremely long, so there are wonderful opportunities for sustained high speed. The off-piste is almost limitless: huge open fields abound. Finally, the scenery is quite glorious: almost all the ski area is below the tree line, which adds particular charm.

So it’s been a splendid few days. Sommets Musicaux may feel itself somewhat in the shadow of the larger Menuhin festival in the summer, but it’s produced some real artistic excellence, and I’m sure its organisers and sponsors are proud of this year’s edition.

5th February 2012