Most of us will visit the Alps only in winter, when the peaks sparkle white against a crisp blue sky and snow squeaks underfoot. But with a series of heatwaves battering the southern Mediterranean, increasingly a summer mountain holiday looks like a clever option. As well as the extraordinary scenery, fresh mountain air and clear glacial lakes (no sewage or random sharks here), there is the residual glamour of the off-season ski resort, mountain cheese and music.
For the mountain music cognoscenti, Verbier is the ultimate destination. The resort has hosted a classical music festival every summer for the past 30 years. Founded by industry titan Martin Engstroem, the festival has featured artists including Bryn Terfel, Lang Lang, Nicola Benedetti and Martha Argerich, as well as more unexpected musicians such as Björk and Rufus Wainwright. The town has no permanent concert hall, so a pop-up structure, the Salle des Combins, seating 1,400, is constructed every year next to the outdoor swimming pool, with concerts also held in a church, a basement nightclub, on the streets and on the mountains. For most of July the entire town is abuzz with music, music lovers and musicians. It has been called the Davos of classical music. But is the Verbier Festival too rarefied for the more casual dabbler in classical music? It was my task to find out.
One of the challenges, I feel, with attending classical music concerts in London is that the quiet attentiveness required is so at odds with everyday urban life, its multiple tasks and distractions. After travelling for nearly ten hours (plane, scenic train ride along the shores of lake Geneva, brain-scrambling zig-zagging taxi drive up into the mountains), I felt at once removed from my quotidian life. Add to that a meditative hour-long ramble in the headily pine-scented forests just above the town and I was ready to take my place in the Salle des Combins.
The opening night of the 30th anniversary featured the superstar pianist Yuja Wang, resplendent in a skin-tight yellow gown, playing Rachmaninov from memory, her hands moving at a seemingly impossible speed. It was a heart-stopping virtuoso performance, of the sort that music aficionados travel across continents to see. Not only that, the concert was conducted by Zubin Mehta, a legend in his own right, who performed at the first Verbier Festival and is now 87. Mehta and Wang were accompanied by the Verbier orchestra, which, like the concert hall, is a yearly pop-up phenomenon, its musicians selected from the alumni of the Verbier academy, a fertile training ground for young musicians.
One of these, the violinist Thomas Pastor, accompanied a group of 20 of us festival attendees the next morning for a “Balade Musicale: musical adventures at great heights”. Cherries, our local guide, led us up the mountain paths, introducing the Alpine flora — the gentian, edelweiss and harebells — and fauna, including the fluffy marmots bounding across the meadows. We listened to the experimental quintet Wooden Elephant play their re-interpretation of the Björk album Homogenic, and enjoyed talks from the musicologist Charlotte Gardner about the violin sonatas of Bach and Ysaye, played by Pastor at scenic spots along the route.
The Swiss Alps are perfect for summer as well as winter
“There is a fine tradition of composers writing some of their best music in summer retreats. Brahms composed his tragic overture in an Austrian lakeside resort, Schumann composed his Rhenish symphony inspired by the landscape of the Rhine valley,” Gardner explains. These pieces of music would be performed later that day. And later in the week there was a performance of Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. “That piece describes a boyhood adventure when Strauss went on a day-long mountain hike with some friends. When they got to the top a storm broke, they got lost on the way down,” Gardner says. “Strauss was into sound pictures. He said he could depict a knife and fork in music if someone paid him enough money.“
That evening I returned to the Salle des Combins to listen to another alumnus of the Verbier academy, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who played Elgar’s Cello Concerto (made famous by Jacqueline du Pré, and featuring in the film Tár). After a day on the mountains I found myself thoroughly receptive to the emotional intensity of the piece, able to sit through two and a half hours of classical music with barely a fidget. I also found myself thoroughly receptive, after the concert, to a cheese fondue dotted with morel mushrooms at Le Caveau, the musicians’ favourite cheese-feast hangout, which serves the alcoholic speciality of the region, the apricot-infused spirit abricotine, with the fresh apricots that are grown locally. These are also used in the homemade apricot sorbet sold at Pâtisserie de la Poste that I found very restorative post-hike.
In the mountains above Verbier there are trails for all levels. Many of the ski lifts are open during the summer, making the highest peaks easily accessible. Some of the prettiest and least taxing walks are along the “bisse”, the man-made streams that make up the medieval irrigation system. But there are longer, lung-busting walks to be had too, up to the majestic Lac des Vaux, which in summer is swimmable, albeit bracingly cold. The most magical walk is down the back of the mountain from the Col des Mines to Tzoumaz, along a narrow paths wild with mountain flowers, spruce trees and more butterflies than your average butterfly house, accompanied by the sounds of waterfalls, cowbells and bees. This is a sort of mountain music that you move through, as opposed to the music in the concert venues of Verbier that moves through you.
Conductor Daniele Gatti at Verbier Festival
On my last evening I eschewed the hot ticket — Yo-Yo Ma at the Salle des Combins — for the violinist Kristof Barati and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the Église, a more intimate venue seating only 400 on the wooden pews (cushions are provided). Barati was performing with the Verbier Chamber Orchestra, Julian Quentin on the harpsichord and four antique and precious Stradivarius violins — one for each season. The standing ovation lasted a good five minutes, leaving me limited time to enjoy roasted langoustine tails, ossobuco risotto and Aperol spritz sorbet at Marco Bassi’s restaurant La Channe before heading to the Taratata nightclub for my next appointment.
The Taratata is a moody, velvet sofas kind of space. It’s where the festival’s fringe programme, UNLTD, puts on more experimental, avant-garde events. On this evening Kanneh-Mason and the pianist Harry Baker performed a jazzily languorous set including re-interpretations of Aretha Franklin and Mahler. By this point I was a full convert to the intoxicating magic of the music in the mountains, and felt a little regretful the next morning, on boarding the train, to be returning to the monotone reality of life in the flatlands.
Where to stay
Hotel Le Vanessa is very comfortable, has wonderfully friendly staff, and although it is right in the centre of the action is just off the main drag, so good for meditative moments on the balcony staring mindlessly at the mountains.
From £200, hotelvanessa.ch
The W Verbier is an upscale offering, right by the lift, with the biggest rooms in the town, all clad in wood and stone. It has the best spa in Verbier, including an indoor pool with a light-studded ceiling recreating the night sky.
From £480, marriott.com
Other places to listen to marvellous music in the mountains
Salzberg Festival (July to August)
Salzberg, a picturesque Austrian city of jostling baroque building, nestled in a ring of mountains, was the birthplace of Mozart, so it is not such a surprise that it has been hosting a classical music festival since 1920.
Stay in the old-school grand Hotel Bristol, right next door to the Salzberg State Theatre. Rooms from £290, bristol-salzburg.at
Bergen International Festival (May to June)
Bergen in Norway occupies a breathtaking location by a crystal blue fjord with precipitous mountains rising on both sides. Its presiding spirit is Edvard Grieg, and as well as music, its annual festival features dance, visual arts and literature.
Stay in the Opus XVI, a beautiful historic hotel named after one of Grieg’s most famous pieces. Rooms from £220, opus16.no/en/opus-xvi
Bravo! Vail (June to August)
This is the most high-profile — and high altitude — mountain music festival in America. Taking place in the ski resort of Vail, Colorado, it has four orchestras and a varied programme including lots of family-friendly events.
Stay at the romantic Sonnenalp, which has a chic euro vibe even though it is in the heart of the Rockies. Rooms from £271, sonnenalp.com
I Suoni delle Dolomiti (August to October)
This Italian festival, in the breathtaking Unesco world heritage site of the Dolomites, positions itself as “in dialogue” with nature. Many of the recitals are held outdoors, the musicians and their instruments interacting sonically with sounds of birds, the weather and the resonances of the peaks.
Stay at Forestis, a gorgeously minimalist architectural wonder that bills itself as the ultimate nature retreat. Rooms from £562, forestis.it
If you want to listen to top-class classical music in the mountains year-round, the glorious Schloss Elmau is an excellent alternative to a festival. The hotel is high in the Bavarian Alps and has much to recommend it: spa, yoga pavilion, library and many splendid outdoor pools. But it also has a dedicated concert space, built 100 years ago, to rival Wigmore and Carnegie Hall. Here the hotel hosts some of the best musicians in the world, such as Yuja Wang, Evgeny Kissin and Grigory Sokolov. There are more than 200 concerts a year, as well as a jazz festival, classical music masterclasses and musical weeks for children. In September the pianist Ludovico Einaudi, the most streamed classical musician in the world, will be playing, and in December it will host the winter edition of the Verbier music festival.
From £350 a night, schloss-elmau.de/en/