In its eighteenth year now, Verbier has its own Festival Academy, Chamber Orchestra and Orchestra, providing young, gifted musicians with the chance to learn from the world’s most noted musicians. Along with this, the musicians and audiences have the wonderful opportunity to be exposed, at this small French-Swiss resort, to an array of world-class performances by the most internationally renowned music superstars.

Thanks to the immense production capabilities of and their sponsors, concerts are transmitted in partly live Internet streaming broadcasts, allowing for virtual worldwide participation. Year after year the artists arrive to partake in an intense program of presentations, master classes, concert performances, as well as to socialize and enjoy the pleasure of being who they are, with the rare chance of being among themselves.

Founder and director Martin T:son Engstroem, as well as a generous network of music loving supporters, make sure of the artists’ enjoyment, by providing lavish dinners for the artists and their entourage at their chalets or restaurants.

Thanks to an invitation from the extraordinary pianist Evgeny Kissin for an interview at this year’s music festival at Verbier, I was able to partake as a member of the press, in an incredibly exciting stay at the festival. While putting together my portrait for the interview, I was especially thrilled to get several firsthand comments from some of the fellow artists Kissin has performed and interacted with over the years.

While all of the concerts presented at the Verbier festival are nothing but first rate, the one of the 26th of July in particular, presented an experience unlike any other. The performance started out with obstacles. Violinist Gidon Kremer was supposed to join in this concert but opted out of performing at the last minute, and famed singer Thomas Quasthoff was unable to perform. This all resulted in what might be considered the best spontaneous improvisation ever.

The sheer star power and massive number of internationally renowned artists, who appeared that night, was simply astounding. Various groupings of paired up artists provided an exhibit of talent that was just astonishing, and as Kremer judged it, not completely unjustifiably, the whole concert carried some of the elements of the high-exalted Hollywood glitterati effect.  However, no artistic facet was missing.

There were certainly some gorgeously attractive artists and sexy wardrobes to admire, the limber Yuja Wang who graces – not unlike LangLang- the Rolex’s advertisements throughout Verbier, for example, changed outfits several times during her performances. This did nothing to mar the exceptional talent filling the stage, projecting the raw emotional power of the music. In fact, the charismatic interaction of the performers with each other enhanced the highest possible delivery of what it’s all about – the music.

Joshua Bell, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Ivry Gitlis, Leonidas Kavakos,Roby Lakatos, Julian Rachlin, Vadim Repin, Yuri Bashmet, Mischa Maisky and Gautier Capucon on strings and Denis Matsuev, Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili, Evgeny Kissin, and the one and only Martha Argerich, with their piano-performances, made sure of that.

Ensemble photo:ALine Paley

The program consisted of shorter selections of musical interludes and included selections of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Kreisler and Shostakovich, as well as some special surprises like Monti Csardas, whose characteristic gypsy resonances added to the incredibly high energy-charged atmosphere in the hall.

Touching and meaningful in forging a personal connection between life and music was Kissin’s dedicated impromptus performance, with Yuri Bashmet, in honor of Bashmet’s father who had passed away the previous day in his native Ukraine. As Bashmet described to me later, Kissin’s supportive gesture of performing the composition of the Czeck composer, Benda, from music Kissin had never seen before (it was faxed from Moscow that same day and both artists were sharing one score) meant the world to him. They had only a couple of minutes before the performance to go through it. The selection spoke highly of Kissin’s support and friendship with the grieving, yet performing, Bashmet.

Bashmet/Kissin Photo: Aline Paley

Bashmet, who had been an acclaimed violist in Russia when Kissin burst into stardom, had been exhilarated when first hearing Kissin’s recital as a 12 year old, performing both Chopin concertos: “It was a revelation, unheard before, like the sky had opened up.” Lovingly, he pointed out Kissin’s timid and modest nature leads him to usually underplay his superior talent and that Bashmet had been struck not only by his own high esteem of Kissin’s genius, but that this estimation was shared by everyone on stage that night.

Repin/Kissin/Bashmet/Maisky Photo: ALine Paley

At Verbier, the audience was able to absorb Kissin’s and Bashmet’s mutual estimation, both in a most touching performance and also from their body language. One could literally feel the sympathy Kissin felt for Bashmet, as he devotedly escorted him off stage, after their performance.
A little bit of the unexpected always brings the audience closer to the mysterious character of a musician’s life. Until the last moment it was unclear whether Martha Argerich – Martha, as she is simply called with iconic admiration- would show as a performer that evening.

Kissin/Argerich Photo: Aline Paley

But alas, she did and she gave – despite her famous nerves and her initial hesitation to perform again right after her tremendous concert just four days earlier- the most stunning of performances in the finale of the evening. Thundering applause acknowledged the extraordinary virtuosity and sheer breathtaking tempi, which she presented with Evgeny Kissin in Lutoslawski’s Pagagini Variations for two pianos. Her sensitive side and charming generosity, though, showed as she shared the stage with legendary old master violinist Ivry Gitlis. Alternatively accompanied by the young pianists Khatia Buniatishvili and Yuja Wang,

Gitlis/Wang Photo: Aline Paley

the old master at age 89, captivatingly demonstrated that true musicianship knows no age.
My biggest wish however was to be present once while Zhenya – as his friends and fellow musicians call Kissin – practiced at the piano. This wish came – if not entirely – to a close realization on the day of that memorable concert.

Kissin in rehearsal

The mere insights gained from witnessing a master musician’s efforts at the piano, how he enhances the secure reliability of memory retrieval, quality and facility in his playing, are instructional and insightful beyond words. To observe how he tries out personal methods of pronouncing different subtleties of touch to produce the ‘right’ tone in a certain passage of the music score, and to just witness the procedure of routine or its diversity would be as fascinating to watch as to take a glimpse into a magician’s toolbox of magic tricks.

While Kissin declined politely, but firmly, my wish to watch him practice, explaining that it would be impossible for him to work while someone else was present, he most generously allowed me to accompany him to his rehearsal before the big night’s performance, provided the other partaking musicians would not object.

Rehearsals had already begun the evening before and continued throughout the day of the concert, at different times for each particular group of artists performing together. Kissin had one rehearsal in the evening before and one that started at noon, which I was able to attend.

A special Verbier moment

The rehearsal was supposed to start with Johannes Brahms’ piano Sonata op. 120, no.2, , in E flat major with Bashmet on viola, running a bit late. Zhenya, who swiftly sat down at the piano, after hanging his leather jacket on the piano’s corner, started to run through sections of the piece. Like me, he loves Brahms, and I was able to share this love from an intimately close distance.

The huge and empty tent structure of Salle des Combins was filled instantaneously with Kissin’s crisp sounding runs, which he attacked from different angles. He started at one place, including a place from a further starting point, then integrated the run in its following passage. He sometimes, but rarely, concentrates on separate hands in a section at a time, and then puts them together. He tries different attacks, faster into the keys, then slower, achieving endlessly breathing phrases that seem to make time stand still, and then he switches to effortless cascading runs that have the natural power of waterfalls. Particularly in chord progressions he seems to use a rather high wrist position, assuring a strong alignment of fingers, hand and forearm, which must be responsible for the total control of his well-balanced shaping of the continuous line of melody.

As Bashmet entered, they conversed in their native Russian and Kissin gave him the internationally understood A to tune his viola according to the grand-piano’s pitch. There will always be this element of mutual communication in music. Since they played mostly through the entire piece without many halts, picking up with a varied pronunciation of a particular upbeat, or the slightest adjustment of tempi, the rehearsal proceeded along speedily.  At one point Kissin glanced over in my direction, but maybe he was really directing himself closer to Bashmet to listen more attentively, but for a moment it felt to me, as if he played for me alone.

While some crew people adjusted microphones quite noisily and Bashmet seemed a bit irritated, Kissin lived, at least at this instant, only with Brahms. Bashmet played most softly, only slightly elevating into crescendos, except at the highest climaxes. At the end of the most beautiful Appasionata, ma non troppo allegro movement, I couldn’t help but applaud even though I realized they were not through the entire piece yet. Bashmet smiled because of my enthusiasm and announced they were not finished, but bowed politely thanking me in good humor anyway.

Kissin thanked the page-turner, who had told me while we both waited for him to arrive, how excited she was since this was her first time turning for Kissin.

Kissin continued to review some of the sections again and then threw himself into the ravishing and notoriously difficult piece that would close the evening’s program, preparing for his rehearsal with Martha for the Paganini Variations.

Kissin in rehearsal

And just as I was recovering from my emotional state of my Brahms experience, in walks Martha herself — the statuesque, grand diva of the festival and a legend in the music world. At seventy, she has not lost any of her youthful appeal, her great spiritedness or her temperamental attitudes. Kissin rose to greet her, they hugged warmly and the two giants of the keyboard were set to deliver a most memorable meeting of the spirits from their respective facing-each-other pianos. Martha generously did not object to my presence and so I was in awe as Kissin fiercely opened the dialogue, as Martha delved into the subtlest sonorities, adding a completely different timbre with the result of combined musical expression that nears the answer to one’s prayers.

Martha was easy going. They leisurely discussed the timing of a certain entrance point and continued through. Martha asked into the audience, which now included another couple of people, “C’etait bien?” Unbelievably to me, she was asking whether this breathtaking performance was working well, so I couldn’t suppress my response “Merveilleux!”
She debated with Kissin whether or not they should do it once more and, to my utmost happiness, they did. “We are safe?” she asked Kissin; “Yes we are safe,” he smiled at her. They are two full-blooded musicians, no question about that. They kissed and I left for a breath of fresh air. Even though I had seen Martha on several occasions during the festival’s concerts from a distance, I had never approached her directly. She joined me on the benches outside the hall, and as she lit a cigarette, we struck up a short conversation. She is easy to talk to and has a very giving personality, which, I believe, is representative of the general atmosphere between the artists that makes for the festival’s success. She herself helps to create an ambience of friendship and connection between the artists, making it possible for them to really feel at ease and actually enjoy a bit of a vacation-like retreat, even though they need to constantly prepare themselves for their ambitious programs.

As she sat around, enjoying her cigarette and greeting passing artists, she portrayed the energy and liveliness of a teenager. We spoke in a mix of French, English and German, and she told me how fond she is of Kissin. “You know, I heard about Zhenya the first time through Daniel Barenboim. I heard his Chopin-concerto recording; unbelievable! I think he was just 12 at the time. And then in the late eighties I met him in Moscow, backstage at one of his performances, when I was there to perform with Gidon Kremer. He asked me for an autogramme, she says smiling. I love Zhenya, there is no one else like him… and I am not just talking about his musical abilities, which are just out of this world, but also as a person. We played together for the first time here in Verbier; I think it was in 1997. He is just so extraordinary. He asked me to come and celebrate his fortieth birthday with me, which is October 10th and he will be on tour in Japan.”

As she got up she asked me what my horoscope is and I told her that I am Taurus. She did not indulge me with what clues that gave her, or which of my characteristics she was curious about, but she smiled mysteriously, as we both returned to the hall for the next round of Kissin’s rehearsal of Brahm’s Piano quartet Op.25, no.1. in G minor.  He and Bashmet were joined by violinist Vadim Repin and the equally forever-young and cool cellist Mischa Maisky. Another beautiful Brahms was rehearsed by this all-star Russian band, which in the actual performance during the evening somehow gained quite a bit in speed.

When I later talked with violinist Vadim Repin, who resides both in Vienna and Moscow, he told me he only regrets that destiny does not bring them together more often. But, he said, when it does, it’s a happy moment. Kissin and Repin initially met when sharing the bill at a Moscow recital when they were both aged thirteen. Their friendship formed, growing up together and sharing many good times and chess games during mutual concert tours. ”Personally, as well as in his music making, I think of him as one of the most uncompromising, strong personalities. I would trust him with my life and that extends to the life on stage. He embodies the perfect balance between sensitivity and capable leadership. Beside myself, my whole family adores his personality.”

Cellist Mischa Maisky remembers how he had performed with Kissin for the first time in 2001 here in Verbier, playing a demanding program that left a strong impression upon him. Again in Verbier, two years ago, they performed the Tchaikovsky trio together with Joshua Bell. As he tries to describe what he likes best about performing with Kissin, he mentions that it is actually the perfect balance of all the ingredients required in great music making. “Of course he has great technical facility, heart and sensitivity, but he is also highly intelligent. Everything is there in perfect balance. He is also a perfectionist with extremely high standards, and he knows what he wants. Yet his devotion is inspirational and raises the bar and it’s great to rise to the challenge.”

A common trait that both Kissin and Maisky share is the strong conviction that musicians who stand in the public eye also carry the moral obligation to engage themselves against injustices and for causes they believe in. As Maisky relates: “While one voice alone may not be heard strongly, common efforts can have a cumulative impact. Therefore one should not stay passively, thinking one can’t change anything anyway. At least one must try and believe in its success.“

Just last month, together with Martha Argerich and Gideon Kremer, both of them participated in a concert, held in Strasbourg demonstrating against anti-democratic practices in Russia.
Verbier’s environment offers unique opportunities to forge new, and renew, old friendships that go beyond the bond of music making especially at some of those famed after-parties.