The first concert of my week at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland was, I expect, not the highlight. While the festival program correctly listed the conductor as Paul McCreesh, the Canadian star I had hoped to see, Measha Brueggergosman, had been replaced by another star, Sophie Koch. I was not too dismayed because this French mezzo is one of the great voices you are likely to hear these days. The program was also changed and Berlioz’s “La Mort de Cléopatre” was now the same composer’s song cycle, “Les Nuits d’Eté,” to the text by Théophile Gautier. I did not know McCreesh and Koch had a history of performing together, but it seemed they were taking different paths to uncover Berlioz’s work. I suspect conductor McCreesh might have been the problem.
One of the extraordinary musical stories of our time is the movement for historically informed performances (HIP) of early music and how, over time, this sensibility has been carried over into the regular concert hall. It did not happen overnight. It was originally a small, close-knit group, mostly English, whose early insistence on historical purity usually led to overly analytical and dry academic performances for the devotees.
As the movement moved toward the mainstream, the orchestra tuning got better, valveless horns blew fewer sour notes and conductors, accepting that there was actually no one specific way to play the Baroque, began to assert their own individuality. There was much less dull group-think. Pioneering HIPsters like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner started carrying this HIP sensitivity over into the Classical and Romantic periods, and Mozart and Beethoven were soon stripped of their thick textures and there was nary a ritardo, rubato or glissando in sight. Now a new generation of young musicians and conductors like Daniel Harding have grown up with this sensibility and attack the regular repertory with a fresh x-ray analysis combined with their own musical poetics.
Thanks to Medici.TV, you can, for example, listen on the internet to the concert at the Salle des Combins of last Friday, the 23rd of July. Here French HIPster Marc Minkowski, who now makes regular appearances around the world in the broader repertory, conducts a program of Faure, many of Canteloube’s “Songs of Auvergne” (with the delicious Anne Sofie von Otter) and ends with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. While the overriding sensibility is still the stripping away of all the romantic excesses of an earlier conducting style, each piece has its own life, its own glory, its own soul.
McCreesh does know his HIP business. The first item on the program was the Overture and Suite of Dances from Gluck’s opera, “Orphée et Eurydice.” Elegance, clarity, balance and polish made the dances a pleasure to hear. Apparently, he does not find voyages outside the HIP corral as easy as others seem to. That is why I believe he had trouble with Sophie Koch and the Berlioz. Berlioz is difficult enough to get a handle on and only a few, like the grand Sir Colin Davis, have achieved complete success. He might not have had enough time with Ms Koch, but it was a partnership that stayed solidly earthbound and I find it hard to fault Koch, who provided the only clues that this could be a major piece of music.
The worst was to come after the intermission. The Beethoven Seventh Symphony was given a roughing-up that it did not deserve. Beethoven as street thug was McCreesh’s vision and his incessant, violent, orchestral hammer blows – no matter the movement – and his need to whack the audience over the head with the thunderous tympani (the wrung-out guy got the first bow at the end) made me glance around for avenues of escape. His conducting style also seemed odd compared with his HIP friends, who normally value precision over schlamperi. You could see the first chairs looking at each other for clues as to what to do, attacks were often ragged and there was notable doodling in some of the tutti passages.
The audience, largely masochistic, seemed to love the brutal roughing-up. If you promise not to miss the majesty, elegiac beauty and troubled soul of this symphony and feel the need to be a punching bag for an out of control, high-testosterone Beethoven, this concert, like all the other major concerts at Verbier, is available for streaming for free until September 30 on Medici.tv.