After more than a year of Covid restrictions, audiences are ready to run wild, and it came pretty close to that in Verbier. Superstar soloists Joshua Bell (violin) and Steven Isserlis (cello) joined the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra under Daniel Harding in a program that on the surface looked mild (Brahms and Beethoven), but in performance, had the effect of dropping a lit match into a crate full of fireworks.

Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, Daniel Harding and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Janosh Ourtilane

Even before the first notes of the Brahms Double Concerto rang out, the excitement at this live concert (I watched via live streaming) was palpable, as though some kind of positive explosion was about to occur. Isserlis, not one to hide his feelings, beamed at the audience with a smile that never left his face in the nearly 40-minute opus, one of the toughest but most affecting works in the multi-instrumental concerto category. Always an audience favorite, Bell was more reserved, but couldn’t contain his delight at the warm reception that segued into an even warmer performance as the two star players, like Olympic athletes who had practiced their routines together for years, played with a synchronicity of pure perfection. We’ve all heard performances in which the two featured players seem to be engaged in a tennis match, lopping phrases back and forth without a personal connection. Not so here. Melodic lines glide from cello to violin and back, one musician seeming to finish the thought of the other. Close your eyes, and you couldn’t say where one left off and the other began.

Daniel Harding
© Janosh Ourtilane

Harding, meanwhile, emphasized the emotive side of Brahms, drawing out waves of feeling in a wide range of dynamics, always cushioning – not competing with – the dazzling interpretations of the soloists. The conductor brought an eagerness to this performance, hurrying up to the next great musical idea, pausing briefly, then dashing ahead for another spurt. From the first notes of the third movement, the orchestra really sunk its teeth into the Vivace non troppo and rallied to a gripping conclusion.

The audience erupted into applause at the concerto’s end to a degree I haven’t seen and heard in years. There was shouting, stomping, clapping, roaring with an appreciation that was justly deserved by all participants, but especially by the featured duo. And as much as the audience appreciated the musicians’ achievement, it was clear that the musicians were grateful for the loyalty and support of their listeners after music’s long dark night.

Daniel Harding conducts the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
© Janosh Ourtilane

The concert concluded with Beethoven’s always refreshing First Symphony, famous for starting in a foreign key and modulating home in an unexpected manner. Harding and the orchestra once again brought us a work of variety within unity, full of youthful assertiveness and with that rich, modern chamber orchestra sound beloved by many listeners. Gold medals all around!


 This performance was reviewed from the live stream 

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