Notes from the Andermatt Music Festival (2) – Baa for Brahms

Andermatt Concert Hall, October 25, 2019 – The musical experience at the second concert of the inaugural Andermatt Music Autumn Festival was a gratifying one. That’s in part thanks to the concert hall. Wider than deep, because of the questionable requirement that it accommodate a 60-piece-plus orchestra, it is shorter than would be ideal for the acoustics. Therefore an electronic acoustic support system was installed to provide discrete ambient amplification and suggest greater depth. It’s hard enough to judge any new hall’s acoustics on only three concerts, but with the added variables of electronic adjustments – itself still in the experimental phase – it’s downright impossible. The system was turned off entirely for Gabriela Montero’s recital the day before (see “Moo is for Mozart”) and the acoustic was fine. Any amplification that was going on during the second concert of Benjamin Grosvenor & Co, was not noticeable as such – certainly not sitting in the first few rows down on the ground floor, just a few feet away from the musicians working their way through Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major K. 493.

It’s just across the Reuss and old-town Andermatt that the development plot chosen by Samih Sawiris for Andermatt Swiss Alps sits. The whole settlement has been designed and planned – five or six of the ultimately four dozen buildings are already up and more or less occupied. They look out of place right now, with just the first few massive blocks huddling together, but the idea seems sound enough: The architecture is kept in line with local styles and closely huddled together, like an organic development in the region would be, with the buildings providing its inhabitants protection from inclement weather. Cars are banned to garages beneath the development. The effort to get this right is notable as the message is massaged into the visiting journalists by the Andermatt Swiss Alps PR peeps. Perhaps the results will follow, once a critical mass of projected buildings has been built.

The idea of the project is to attract the well-heeled with good skiing, excellent alpine golfing (cows are impassive onlookers as you try to putt on the fifth hole), and real-estate investment opportunities that is generally not available to foreign nationals in thus restrictive Switzerland. This “New Andermatt” and the boosted tourism industry around it, is eventually meant to support the whole village and valley, keeping it from a steady descent toward ghost town status. Amid all these plans and building projects, the concert hall, the ostensible reason for the presence of the journalists covering the “Andermatt Music Autumn Festival”, seems like a cherry on top: A private indulgence, rather than an essential ingredient to making the region more popular. Even with four seasonal mini-festivals and young artists programs, these events are bound to be more window dressing than draw. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Quite the opposite. Classical music has always relied on the deep pockets of a few to subsidize the expensive art-form for the appreciative rest of us.

Never having met before, Grosvenor and his three string colleagues, picked from the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, had been rehearsing for days, and it showed in a smooth, well-played, and genially old-fashioned performance of the Mozart. With his bright and prominent tone, violinist Raphael Christ led the proceedings – all the while being capable of taking himself back when needed. From behind the stringy front, Grosvenor provided amiable support with a round and generous tone and enough nuance to keep things interesting. But for a mildly lethargic Larghetto, this was sumptuous, lyrical, not overly enunciated, and pretty. Gustav Mahler’s teenage Movement for Piano Quartet in A minor is an inconsequential doozy. Following the Mozart, it sounded a touch non-descript but satisfying in the quartet’s earthbound, never hysterical performance.

The concluding Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor Op. 25, now listened to from the balcony above, was a strong affair, with a broad dynamic bandwidth and no false sense of restraint. The finale even suggested humor, which is too rarely a part of Brahms recitals. There was sense of a ribbing the music for some of its overly dramatic passages, except not at Brahms’ expense but as if on his behalf. Bedded on Grosvenor’s supple, warm pianism, this was gratifying indeed. Curious only was cellist Jens Peter Maintz’s flamboyant playing on the open strings, something I am sure he would never let any of his students get away with.

As for flies in the ointment: The balcony’s railing is installed at a height – no doubt building-code prescribed – that blocks the view of the stage for any tall adult, leaving you either to sit up unnaturally straight to look over it (no doubt to the delight of the person behind you) or worm your way diagonally into the seat, to see through beneath it. The acoustics were good. Not knowing about the amplification, one would not have supposed help from hidden speakers in the paneling. But there were brief moments of acoustic oddity when string instruments – in particular the cello – dropped out and came back in at random. Hard to put a finger on, but noticeably enough to give pause. Even before the concluding orchestral concert the next day, the feeling was that the sound engineers will have to fiddle a good deal themselves to work out all the potential kinks, but that they are on a good path.