The Verbier Academy is, esssentially, great fun. It has accompanied the Verbier Festival in the Swiss Alps every summer since the early 1990s providing 8 young talents across a number of instruments and musical disciplines (piano, voice, cello, chamber music, violin etc) to work with world class maestros on their understanding of the great works of the standard repertoire. The workshops take place every morning in front of non-paying but appreciative audiences in a variety of pleasant settings in this mountain resort about 90 minutes from Geneva.

Menahem Pressler, centre surrounded by masterclass students
Menahem Pressler, centre surrounded by masterclass students

The Verbier Festival's piano academy is the most illuminating and significant, perhaps due to the fact that the Piano Academy was co-founded and is still co-ordinated by the French pianist Caroline Haffner; there is a sense of continuation and understanding of the process involved in developing great musicians. Each year Caroline hears the tapes of about 150 hopefuls who want to take part in the piano academy and then with the Academy administrators and Director, Christian Thompson, limits them to just eight who take part in the fortnight of open masterclasses.

The piano academy started on Thursday 15 July with Maestro Menahem Pressler, the founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio and Professor of Music at the University of Bloomington in the USA. In May he was on the jury which awarded Denis Kozhukin, the young Russian pianist, the Grand Prix of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium. Last week he heard Denis' younger brother Vladislav, play the Haydn Sonata in G Major for him at the Verbier Piano Academy opening day masterclass.

Pressler's ability to put the great works of composers into the centre of the music is remarkable. He uses imagery and encouragement to read and understand the detail of the scores as he places the works at the centre of each student's focus on their chosen music. His attention to detail in terms of the edition of each work is also helpful - for example, he prefers some editions of Beethoven's music because they are not the "original" versions.

Beethoven reworked a lot of his music and his notes on the later editions are key to understand his intentions. Pressler's use of the present tense for what each composes "does" with the music is also illuminating. His knowledge is exceptional for his teaching : Chopin apparently reworked all 24 of his etudes while in Mallorca and, according to George Sand, was impossible to live with during the project especially as, at the end of all his efforts he reverted to the original version, saying it was the best. For the student trying to grasp the delicacies of the 4th Ballade Pressler encouraged her to imaging the waves breaking on the shore - "the music will fit, I assure you" he said. Pressler's own performance and recording history is immense and inspiring.

Menahem Pressler continues until 22 July with the morning masterclasses and plays on 20 and 22 July in the Festival - when he plays Beethoven's fourth piano concerto with Daniel Harding conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra at the new concert salle in Verbier.

The Verbier Academy runs every morning until 1st August 2010. Concerts in the afternoon.

Verbier Festival events can be found on our pages here.

20th July 2010