If you are an habitué of the Verbier Festival, then you will be au fait with many of the musicians playing at the inaugural edition of the Tsinandali Festival. That is no coincidence. Avi Shoshani and Martin Engstroem, the impresarios who in 1994 founded Verbier, are now in charge in Tsinandali, and have brought with them a dizzying array of superstar soloists. Quality has also been ensured when it comes to the resident ensembles. If the newly founded Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra and Tsinandali Festival Academy Orchestra are the first two pillars of this festival, the third is the seasoned Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra.

Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra © Tsinandali Festival
Gábor Takács-Nagy and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Tsinandali Festival

This first of the VFCO’s five engagements showed just what a valuable asset it is. Playing under its music director Gábor Takács-Nagy, it radiated joy for music making – the very thing Verbier – and now Tsinandali – is all about. András Schiff, another Verbier regular, played with characteristic poise and grace. Yet in comparison with the VFCO, he also came across as disengaged.

It was the VFCO rather than the pianist that most powerfully commanded attention in the opening movement, by providing both unstoppable momentum and a potpourri of colour and detail including piquant winds and cellos that sawed powerfully through roving lines. Schiff was his graceful and controlled self; what was required was a greater sense of enjoyment of Beethoven’s kaleidoscopic runs.

Such contrasting characters made for a striking second movement – here a thing of utter beauty. The orchestra generated lacerating cracks of the whip; an unflinching Schiff unflinchingly floated through a crowd of adversaries, every bit the pure and incorruptible musical hero. It was a powerful depiction of Orpheus attacked by the Furies that was as dramatic as it was gently poetic. Yet in the finale, pianist and orchestra simply felt imbalanced, the former ricocheting through its triplet figures with unbridled energy, the latter seemingly finding it all too easy as he effortlessly tossed off fiendish runs.

Gábor Takács-Nagy and the VFCO © Tsinandali Festival
Gábor Takács-Nagy and the VFCO
© Tsinandali Festival

Following that, Takács-Nagy attempted to clarify one of the great mysteries surrounding Beethoven’s life: how did a composer drawn to the brink of suicide by the discovery of his impending deafness bring himself to write a work as sunny as his Symphony no. 2 in D major? A letter by Beethoven dated 16th November 1801, written while he was hard at work on the symphony, and which contrasts markedly with the later doom-laden Heiligenstadt Testament for its positivity, provides some clues, by indicating the composer's determination to express his creative genius. "I appear a misanthrope; but the reality is quite the contrary! [...] For me there is no pleasure so great as to promote and to pursue my art," Takács-Nagy read out from the podium. "Oh! it is so glorious to live one's life a thousand times over!"

The VFCO could hardly have more strongly embodied that vitality. Here was a tight and pithy reading of the radiant Allegro moderato, the various sections of this beautifully coordinated ensemble generating a sense of collective cosmic wonder in the introduction, making it unmistakable the Second is the clear predecessor to Beethoven's “Eroica”. It provided an awesome density of sound and explosive energy in the movement's accented chords, as well as a wealth of individual detail, the batonless Takács-Nagy, wiry and ninja-like, extracting gorgeous melodic strands including coiling strings, lilting winds and a horn that seared through the surface like a warm knife through butter. After the simplicity and elegance of the pastoral Larghetto, the engine revved more powerfully in the Scherzo before the firecrackers of the Allegro molto provided a final flourish of excitement. Joyous music-making indeed.

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