One of the most surprising musical stories of the past year has been the rise of the debonair Montenegrin guitarist Milos Karadaglic. His background is romantic – he extricated himself from Nato’s Balkan bombardments by winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy, London – and he has recently proved that it’s possible to deliver satisfyingly serious solo guitar recitals in stadiums, and that nightclub gigs needn’t entail dumbing-down.
For his debut at the Verbier Festival, he put all his goods in the window, beginning with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue from the Suite BWV 997, which allowed him to display his virtues – a pellucid polyphonic clarity, and an immaculate beauty of line. The rest of his programme celebrated the fact that the European distinction between “classical” and “popular” is meaningless in South American music, with a virtuosic Villa-Lobos sequence and an adroit version of “Bésame Mucho”.
But this Swiss festival, which on Sunday celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert by a throng of returning stars, can also reach rarefied heights, as in Tuesday’s recital by the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov. This eccentric aesthete once told me – only half-jokingly – that he practised 24 hours a day, and when you watch him at the keyboard you realise what he means. He has always been reclusive, and these days doesn’t travel much, so his event could have sold out three times over.
The programme told us that Schubert’s D 899 Impromptus and Drei Klavierstücke D 946 would be followed by Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata: from most pianists, that would have sounded like a threat but not from this keyboard poet. The opening of the first Impromptu seemed to come from far away like echoes of a remembered battle, but as one late Schubert piece segued into another the bittersweet lyricism came across with startling intimacy.
There were no great revelations in Sokolov’s unfussy account of the first two movements of the Hammerklavier but the Adagio felt like an exploration of a sunlit labyrinth, and I have never heard the normally-forbidding Fugue played with such open-hearted warmth. After the final notes had died away, Sokolov scurried off without a backward glance but then returned transformed. Behind the diffident façade, this man is a born entertainer, and having scaled Everest for us, he was now going to take us for a frolic in the foothills. His first five encores were rarities by the 18th-century French clavecinistes he loves, and the coup de grâce was a finely shaded Brahms Ballade in which every note sounded in a tenderly pearlised haze.
This year’s festival has the usual complement of chamber groups, with one headed by David Aaron Carpenter – flanked by two of his siblings – being outstanding. This youthful New Yorker is a band leader in the old Hungarian gypsy mould but with the added heft of a viola rather than a fiddle. He gave us some uncharacteristically mellow Hindemith, some Piazzolla with dark glitter, and ended with a central European potpourri in which everything had a New York edge.
Later, violinist Pinchas Zukerman delivered a rather tired account of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata with pianist Angela Cheng. He redeemed himself, though, by joining forces with his cellist wife Amanda Forsyth for a scintillating performance of Kodály’s rarely heard and strikingly Bartókian Duo for Violin and Cello, Op 7.
Continuing until August 4, the festival has a lot to recommend it. Its concerts are broadcast live on the internet, and are complemented by masterclasses that are free and open to anyone; it has become a laboratory for new works and new musical partnerships, and, through its youth orchestra and summer camp, it has become the first port of call for young instrumentalists seeking to make their mark on the international circuit.