The cellist Rostropovich swept around the world amassing friends, disciples and supporters; and few places offered him such generous support as Evian, the spa town by Lake Geneva, famous for its water and the super-elegant, impressively expensive Hotel Royal which sits above the town in rolling parkland. In that parkland is a concert hall, built totally from wood, looking bizarrely like an outsized Russian dacha, and a gift from the hotel to Rostropovich – or, more properly, a bribe for him to run a festival there: the Rencontres Musicales d’Evian, which flourished under his direction but then lapsed after his death.
Four years ago the stylish, Paris-based Modigliani Quartet resurrected it, inviting friends to play high-level chamber music, either in the “dacha” or the Belle Epoque casino nearby. And they have no trouble finding stars: a few days at the Hotel Royal is no hardship.
This year, though, they had a problem when Evgeny Kissin cancelled and his last-minute replacement was a pianist of entirely different character, Stephen Kovacevic. Where Kissin dazzles with still-youthful fire, Kovacevic is ageing, thoughtful and more concerned with the interior life of what he plays than with its outer definition. He supplies no wow factor. And there were moments in his concert where he all but vanished in the mists of his own mindfulness.
But there was wisdom too. And wisdom similarly saved the veteran cellist Lynn Harrell, who with the pianist Nicholas Angelich brought Evian so ghostlike an account of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata it could have been coming from beyond the grave.
But it was yet another veteran, the violist Gerard Causse, who contributed to my best experience of Evian: a morning concert that paired him with the pianist Jean-Frederic Neuberger, violinist Guillaume Sutre and cellist Julia Hagen. An ad hoc group, their ensemble had a certain roughness, but it was alive in an entirely captivating reading of the Brahms C Minor Piano Quartet. And it positively shone in something that I’d never heard before: a piano quartet by the late 19th-century composer Guillaume Lekeu that was revelatory. Lekeu died at 24 and isn’t known outside his native France. But to experience the seething tumult of this (never finished) quartet is to understand his early death as one of the great tragedies of music history.
The music sounds like Fauré, but in overdrive, charged with an electricity that this performance didn’t spare. It felt like getting drunk before midday, and left me staggering along the lakeside afterwards, trying to walk myself into sobriety. I sometimes wonder, as a critic who has been around a while, what I can hope for in the way of life-changing discoveries. Well, here’s one. And I’m on its case.
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