Franz Schubert’s Rondo in A major for Violin and Strings highlights the skills of the soloist, and in this case, that was the superb 23-year old violinist Mathilde Milwidsky. With a surprisingly mature lyrical insight, and accompanied by the strings of Musikdorf Ernen’s Festival Orchestra, the soloist varied the single-movement piece’s two sections, moving from the dynamic, robust passages of the Introduction to the compelling nuances and colour and the Rondo. Under the clear direction of Concertmaster Daniel Bard, the group capitalized on Schubert’s melodic themes, never sounded hackneyed or predictable, despite its good deal of repetitive themes.

Sally Beamish © Ashley Coombes
Sally Beamish
© Ashley Coombes

Secondly, Xenia Jankovic — Artistic Director of the chamber music series — played solo cello in Ernst Bloch’s highly emotive Three Pieces from Jewish Life. Cited as belonging to an “unmistakable genus of pieces” that are imbued with a uniquely Jewish sound, Bloch himself insisted that underscoring that attribute was less important for him than simply “to write good and sincere music". In each of the three movements here, Bloch emphasizes unexpected intervals and harmonies, the overall sensation being one of profound sadness and introspection. Jankovic seemed rather in her own world as she played, underscoring a tremendous sense of isolation. The last chord gave way to a lighter mood, however, when percussionist Andrey Doynikov gave a musical interlude on a hand-held drum, bridging the interval and reseating for the next performance.

In Jean Sibelius’ Suite for Violin and Strings, violinist Bogdan Božović played with great conviction. The ferociously fast third movement, Summer, (Andantino) seemed a tad beyond the comfort zone of his otherwise very strong fingering, but his rapport with the other players and his bodily connection to the score was highly commendable. As was that of the violinist Arata Yumi, who later in the programme, and under the baton of Mladen Miloradovic, showed his mastery of the harrowing dissonances in Darius Milhaud’s 1919 work, Le Bœuf sur le toit. That, too, was a tremendous achievement, the young player as secure in his craft as he was grateful for the warm audience reception.

Sally Beamish’s Piano Concerto no. 1 “Hill Stanzas” was perhaps the evening’s most highly anticipated work, not only because this marked its première performance in Switzerland, but also because Ms Beamish — Musikdorf Ernen’s Composer-in-Residence this season — was herself playing viola in the orchestra. Pianist Ronald Brautigam premiered the piece last year in Amsterdam, but here in Ernen, it was the young Scotsman, Alasdair Beatson, who brought tremendous energy and rare light to the work. His enthusiasm for what he was playing was just palpable.

In four movements, “Hill Stanzas” pays tribute to the raw and legend-rich nature of the Scottish Highlands, that haunting landscape of the country Beamish moved to from London as a young married woman. Inspired by Nan Shepherd’s book The Living Mountain, the first movement includes sounds of bubbling underground streams, bird calls, and the clean open space around them. Oddly, the second movement, “Sleep”, kept me wide awake and on my toes, but felt a bit unhinged from the themes around it. The last two movements, however, were contiguous: both play on legends indigenous to the Scottish Highlands. “Galamourie (enchantment)” and “The Tailors’ Stone”, alluding to the tale of three poor tailors keen to dance who, fearfully, took cover behind a large boulder and died there.

Joined of the merrymaking and intrigue of the outdoor world with the mystic spirit, “Hill Stanzas” stretched the various instruments to the limits of their sounds, and categorically invited the listener in. It almost seemed that spirit of the Highlands had found its parallel in the legends of Ernen, the historic Swiss alpine town that has had its own share of dark murmurs, tales and mystery. 

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