Classical music festivals can be exhausting if stimulating affairs. The common urge to fit in as much as possible often requires trips to be planned with military precision. Not so with the Varignana Festival. Billed as Bologna’s first classical music summer festival, it takes place every July at the Palazzo di Varignana – a villa turned resort and spa situated in a hilly landscape. Are you torn between enjoying your summer fix of music and taking a relaxing getaway? The Varignana Music Festival allows you to combine the two.

Open-air concert at Palazzo di Varignana © Varignana Music Festival
Open-air concert at Palazzo di Varignana
© Varignana Music Festival

The palazzo itself provides idyllic surroundings. Its thirty hectares of gardens are abundant with maples, rose bushes, ornamental cherries and 76 species of oak. The resort has plenty to offer, including restaurants, swimming pools, a spa and sports facilities. Day trippers may want to visit the thermal baths in nearby Castel San Pietro Terme, an elegant 17th-century town of 21,000 inhabitants, or to sample local wines at tasting sessions in Dozza. At a distance of 18km, the multifarious wonders of Bologna are a short drive away.

This being Emilia-Romagna – perhaps Italy’s most food-obsessed region – cuisine is one of the festival’s focuses. Each concert is followed by an open-air dinner to which both audience members and performers are welcome. But that’s not all. The resort is aimed at fostering the community and the economic sustainability of the wider area. This can be seen in the kitchen: the ingredients used by the chef are sourced locally, such as the olive oil, jam, honey and other delicatessen. Consequently, one can experience a taste of Italy at its best, with its rich culinary tradition. And considering the interesting range of programmes on offer, there will certainly be plenty to discuss over plates of tortellini.

Michael Barenboim © Marcus Höhn
Michael Barenboim
© Marcus Höhn
In the opening concert, the Varignana Music Festival Choir and Orchestra perform rousing overtures and soft-grained choruses from Italian operas by Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and others. Later in the festival, the women of the Bologna Opera House Choir turn to German repertoire, with a series of glowing works for female voices including Schubert’s Psalm 23, Schumman’s Romances for female voices and piano and Brahms’ Vier Lieder aus dem Jungbrunnen. If any music is capable of easing audiences into a summer mood, this is surely it.

But this is a festival in which solo instrumentalists and chamber ensembles predominate. The young violinist Michael Barenboim is accompanied by the Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin. Barenboim’s first solo disc, which was released in March 2017 and features pieces by Bach, Bartók and Berlioz, is notable for its bold range of works. His festival programme may look more traditional at first glance, but it should also show off the violinist’s impressive versatility. Mozart’s dainty Violin Sonata in E flat major, with its first movement game of cat and mouse and harmonically experimental second, is a palate cleanser to Beethoven’s fiery Violin Sonata no .3. Brahms’ breezy Viola Sonata in E flat major makes for an appropriately radiant conclusion.

Kozhukhin also performs a solo concert of music for piano by Mendelssohn, Grieg and Gershwin. If that looks like an eclectic programme, so is that of pianist Antonii Baryshevskyi, who plays Schumann and Schubert alongside Scriabin and Stravinsky. Shortly after, Alexander Romanovsky’s ambitious programme is not to be missed. Piano music rarely comes more brilliant than Liszt’s fearsome Piano Sonata in B minor and Chopin’s dazzling 12 Études. In what should be a festival highlight, the gifted Russian pianist has decided to play both in one sitting.

After-concert dinner at Varignana © Varignana Music Festival
After-concert dinner at Varignana
© Varignana Music Festival

Young violinist Daniel Lozakovich plays music by Beethoven and Saint-Saëns (accompanied by Alexander Romanovsky), while the Quartetto Prometeo offers not one but two attractive programmes. The first pairs Mendelssohn’s bracing String Quartet no. 6 with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet no. 2 (again featuring Alexander Romanovsky). In the second, Scarlatti’s Alle fonti della Stravaganza precedes Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, with cellist Enrico Bronzi joining the group.

In its festival-closing programme, however, the Kremerata Baltica presents lesser-known works. Reinhold Glière’s characterful Eight pieces for violin and cello (1909) is followed by Rebecca Clarke’s Lullaby and Grotesque for viola and cello (1918). This suitably gnarly work, written by Clarke to be played by herself and the English cellist May Mukle, sits surprisingly well with Silvestrov’s 8.VI.1810 Zum Geburtstag R.A. Schumann (2004), whose eerily screeching strings and dappled textures recall Morton Feldman. And in Giovanni Sollima’s Spasimo (1995), a richly meditative piece inspired by music from the Middle East, Kremerata Baltica will close with a killer work.


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This article was sponsored by Varignana Music Festival.