Every year for the past two decades, a remarkable music festival has taken place above the clouds at 5,000 feet. Perched high in the Swiss mountains two hours’ drive from Geneva, the tiny ski-town of Verbier welcomes a roster of international musicians for a fortnight each summer, to make music with each other, to train budding soloists and the youthful members of the Verbier Festival Orchestra, and to enjoy the atmosphere. Quite the views, too, with the glaciers of the Grand Combin easily visible, Mont Blanc not far away, and the Matterhorn in the next valley over.

© Nicolas Brodard
© Nicolas Brodard
In 2013, the Verbier Festival celebrates its 20th birthday with its usual mix of public access and a solo line-up to make audiences giddier even than the high-altitude air. Founded by Swedish agent and recording executive Martin Engström and inaugurated in 1994 by Zubin Mehta and the Young Israel Philharmonic, the festival’s concerts now take place in the local church, and in a new concert hall that would seat half the village’s population at its off-season level.

This year, as ever, there are the usual slots for big-budget works. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony opens the season with the Verbier Festival Orchestra’s chief conductor Charles Dutoit at the helm, Christian Zacharias leads Schubert’s E flat major Mass, Gianandrea Noseda fires up Verdi’s Requiem, and Esa-Pekka Salonen drops by for Mahler’s gargantuan Third Symphony. In a concert for the composers’ mutual anniversaries, Valery Gergiev pairs Act I of Verdi’s Otello with Act III of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with roles sung variously by Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Iréne Theorin.

© Nicolas Brodard
© Nicolas Brodard

The real draw, as if that were not enough, comes for pianophiles. The Beethoven piano concertos, plus the Choral Fantasia, come back-to-back in two concerts with six different pianists. And although there is no Martha Argerich this year – she prefers a different Swiss town for her summer retreat – there are plenty of great pianists on show, often in unusual repertoire. Yuja Wang, for instance, accompanies thoughtful violinist Leonidas Kavakos in all three Brahms sonatas, while Evgeny Kissin and Daniil Trifonov relay the piano stool in a concert of a Schubert trio and a Dvoƙák quintet. There are solo recitals, too, from Kissin, Grigory Sokolov, Hélène Grimaud, Menahem Pressler, and Khatia Buniatishvili, in the latter case mixing works by Schumann, Strauss, Liszt, and Schubert with spoken verse read by Thomas Quasthoff.

© Aline Paley
© Aline Paley
There is plenty to whet the appetite in terms of other soloists too. Clarinettist Martin Fröst reprises the memorable concerto written for him by Anders Hillborg, Peacock Tales, Maxim Vengerov continues his return, and Rufus Wainwright has an entire programme dedicated to his works. Simon Keenlyside, partnered with Emanuel Ax, sings Brahms, Wolf, and Fauré. Finally, while the programming in general at this festival is far from daring, one evening concert in the church stands out: Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps followed by Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, sung by Barbara Sukowa.

Read more