A Certain Caliber of Music, and of Light

With the bench already occupied, two young couples simply waited for the start of the concert on the freshly-cut grass next to the church. Both men lay on their backs with a hand over their eyes, the women, alert and sitting Indian style, faced the broad, blue valley. “I might have dressed too informally,” said the one, who was in a stylish pair of trousers and a loose-fitting top. “No, no,” said her friend in Swiss-German, “dress isn’t the issue here. Don’t worry.”

Combined with the high caliber of musical performance, and a setting second to none, that very casualness and sense of “open to all” count among the many appealing attributes of the Musikdorf Ernen. Francesco Walter − the festival’s fine artistic director – also promotes that feeling; he circulates among the visitors to welcome them, acknowledging old acquaintances, asking if newcomers’ arrangements are in order, if they acquired their tickets without a hitch. And commendably, his team of assistants is a well-informed, digital systems-savvy group of young adults who embrace the chance to take on a large responsibility, but also add a degree of fresh enthusiasm to the events.

On this past, balmy Sunday evening, concertgoers gathered at Ernen’s 16th century parish church to hear Beatrice Berrut in the very first of the “Piano” week’s concerts. While local to the Canton of Valais by birth, Berrut already enjoys an international reputation, having performed in the Berliner Philharmonie and at Wigmore Hall, among other highly renowned venues. Here in Ernen, with a well-lit and high Baroque altar (1760) making a kind of golden aura behind her, Berrut began her program with Bach organ variations that Ferrucio Busoni adapted for piano, and she followed those with a compelling version of a Chopin Fantasie.

Her third piece Jeux de Doubes, by the French composer, Thierry Escaich (*1965), was the only work by a living composer. It moves from orbit to orbit, its magical center sounding like tinkling glass. That, in turn, gives way to the gathering speed of what could be a pending collision of planets. Berrut’s body language and facial expression made the dynamic work that much more emotive; she connected to the piece in almost a visceral way, and the work’s final explosive chord made the audience jump in its seats. Further, after the break, the pianist gave a flawless performance of Johannes Brahms Four Ballads, op. 10 and met the unparalleled demands of Franz Liszt’s After a Lecture by Dante with great strength and tenacity. There, her chord clusters at tremendous volume resembled the turbulence of a fateful storm in the alps. What a fine choice of repertoire for an Ernen recital!

There was still some light over the valley as I drove the short distance back up into the Binntal after the concert – and to the chalet that is home for this week. The beautiful Bach that Berrut had played as an encore stayed as a melody in my head, and fully resonated in the mountains.

Ernen, 14 July 2015, by Sarah Batschelet