If this concert did what it said on the tin, the tin said something like “Young performers give energy, virtuosity and musicality beyond their years. Warning: may contain imperfections.”

© Miguel Bueno
© Miguel Bueno

This year’s Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad is themed “The magic of the violin.” As well as the main concerts in Saanen and Rougemont churches, it contains a series of eight concerts in the small chapel in Gstaad itself, each pairing a very young violinist with a somewhat more experienced accompanist. Each concert includes a world première: the festival’s composer-in-residence, Jean-Luc Darbellay, has written a series of eight short “Miniatures” and conducts a workshop on the morning of the concert with the performers of the day’s piece.

Nineteen year old German violinist Albrecht Menzel, accompanied by Korean pianist Moon Young Chae, started us off with Prokofiev’s second violin sonata. From the first notes, it was clear that Menzel extracts a marvellous, warm tone from his instrument. There was much to savour about the performance: great use of dynamics and a real Russian feel, making the most of Prokofiev’s energetic rhythms and harmonies that reminded me of his ballet music. I enjoyed Chae’s performance in the 2nd movement presto, an unusual ten-time rhythm that she played with delightful lightness of touch. I found the third movement andante rather forgettable, with little signs of interaction between the two players, but the pace was picked up again in the allegro con brio fourth.

It was a satisfying performance overall, albeit short of perfection. Prokofiev uses a lot of very fast, short runs leading up to an accented note: Menzel was creditably powerful on the accent, but I often rather lost the notes leading up to it - a swift wash rather than a series of clearly articulated individual notes.

And so on to Darbellay’s piece which, the composer explained, was a tribute to the Russian composer Edison Denisov, whom he described as a man of great charm prone to outbursts of violent rage. Darbellay is a charming man himself, but I don’t think he was giving much quarter to his young performers: the piece opened with a series of long pianissimo notes which seemed to me (as a non-violinist, I admit) to be ferociously demanding on bowing technique. Menzel managed fine except at the point of reversing direction, where the magic was rather broken. The second half of the piece worked better, with percussive piano painting a splendid picture of Denisov’s rages.

Menzel and Chae were on safer ground with the Schumann op. 131 fantasy: the lilt of romantic melodies and the ebb and flow of Schumann’s harmonic invention were rendered impeccably. The fourth piece, Ernst’s Hungarian melody, had all the makings of a classic virtuoso encore: glissandi, trills, double octave leaps, accelerandos. It was played with impressive virtuosity, but I had a couple of reservations. Firstly, the piece is fairly long, and the nature of the beast demands that the violinist gets steadily more showy and impressive as it progresses. Menzel started off at such a tremendous energy that there was nowhere to go to ramp it up: by the end, I thought the music dragged. Also, he looked terribly serious throughout, and I think it’s part of the show that if you play this kind of music, you have to look like you’re enjoying it.

However, I had no such reservations for the real encore: Vieuxtemps’s Souvenir’s d’Amérique, a set of variations on Yankee Doodle. Here, Menzel and Chae played each variation with a steady increase in the degree of manicness, just as one might hope for. A second encore was a Schnittke Polka, another virtuoso piece played with verve and enthusiasm. The whole concert was a great showcase for how to bring on young talent: I think this series is a wonderful feature of the festival.