The first ever Andermatt Music Winter Festival took place between January 15 and 19, 2020. Three young Englishmen curated the program for the new concert hall: symphonic and chamber music, lectures, and a recital. It was to be a mountainous excursion, with Daniel Barenboim and Beethoven.
Andermatt in the Uri Alps: steep rocky slopes and a cold southerly wind. Accessible only from the north through the Schöllenen gorge, the Matterhorn-Gotthard Railway fights its way uphill, almost crawling to the village of 1,500 souls. The Furka Pass leads westwards, the Oberalp Pass to the east, and the Gotthard Pass to the south.
Perhaps because of these challenging conditions, Andermatt has spent its existence in search of an identity. It initially functioned as a trade and cargo center, and for a couple of decades in the 19th century, as a destination for the region’s Belle Époque tourism, until the Gotthard tunnel brought travelers through the mountain without needing to stop in the village. The number of visitors declined sharply. During and after the two World Wars, Andermatt morphed into Switzerland’s most extensive military redoubt, with all jobs in some way dependent upon the Swiss army. The end of the Cold War saw the disarmament of the barracks. The ski lifts became outdated and the hotels dusty through the ensuing economic dry spell—until the arrival of Samih Sawiris in 2004. The Egyptian-Montenegrin businessman and billionaire promised to restore the mountain village to its glory days. While in the 2000s there was talk of 400 million francs of investment, by the end of 2018 this figure had risen to around 1.05 billion. Not only did this include 458 apartments and hundreds of hotel rooms, but also a golf course, exclusive chalets on the bank of the Reuss, and an additional 130 million for the expansion of the Andermatt-Sedrun-Disentis ski area. Around 300 kilometers of ski slopes, and around 55 lifts, can now be reached from Andermatt. But I wasn’t here for the skiing. I was here to listen to the music.
The construction taking place here is perhaps most strikingly reflected by the newly built holiday village of Reussen. Apartment buildings are arranged around a sort of town center, flanked by a four-star hotel toward the railway tracks. It’s in this hotel, or rather the concert hall within, that the first Andermatt Music Festival took place. Reussen is so new that it doesn’t show up on Google Maps yet. Instead, the satellite image shows only a construction site.
Since summer 2019, the Andermatt Concert Hall’s classical music program has been curated by three young Englishmen: 27-year-old Maximilian Fane as artistic director, 30-year-old Roger Granville as creative director, and 30-year-old Frankie Parham as executive producer. Since 2017, the trio has also organized a festival in Florence with no less an aim than a “Renaissance of the Renaissance.” The goal in Andermatt is different: “Now that there’s a concert hall here, we want to encourage the local population and the entire Canton of Uri to take part,” Fane explains over a tea in the hotel bar. “I have the feeling that there isn’t really a concert culture here yet, which enables us to develop one. Two days ago, a couple of people asked me what kind of concert is taking place in the evening. I said ‘Daniel Barenboim!’ and they replied: ‘Who’s Daniel Barenboim?’”
Modesty over Maestrodom
Barenboim travelled to Andermatt with four of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas and his own grand piano—created especially by the Belgian builder Chris Maene in cooperation with Steinway. For almost five years, it’s been Barenboim’s constant companion in Europe. Unlike modern grands, which are overstrung, Barenboim’s grand is straight-strung, as those in Liszt’s times were. Barenboim has also had the keys made a little narrower so that they’re a better ergonomic fit to his hands. And the most obvious personalization? Instead of “Steinway & Sons,” the golden inscription reads “Barenboim.”
Every one of the 650 seats in the concert hall was occupied. Though Barenboim seemed tired, he preceded to make music like a conductor, shedding the corset of the virtuoso pianist, swapping the desire for perfection in favor of a wish for artistic clarity. His interpretation of the Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major op. 78 was a triumph of modesty against the pressure of expectation. Every note communicated something, and the most beautiful colors streamed from this special piano.
The second day of the festival began with a talk. The Hungarian music journalist and moderator Ádám Bősze interviewed soloists Nikita Boriso-Glebsky (violin) and Yoon-Jee Kim (piano) on their relationship to Beethoven. Boriso-Glebsky emphasized how important it is to always keep the “big picture” in mind when it comes to the composer, in order not to get too bogged down in the details. He lived up to this premise in the concert that evening: long phrases, flawless intonation, and a differentiated understanding of form shaped his interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.
On the third day, the “Coriolan Overture” showcased the talents of the English Classical Players, especially timpanist Tristan Fry. Fry is something of a rockstar on the timpani in England, and his playing was completely unambiguous, and extremely cool. Pianist Yoon-Jee Kim let her piano sing, roach, and bubble at just the right moments.
But the real highlights of the Winter Festival were to be found outside of the two big concerts—at the chamber music matinee with Nikita Boriso-Glebsky, and the pianist Georgy Tchiadze. The duo harmonized perfectly and took all the right risks. The heart and soul of their recital was the “Kreuzer” Sonata. Even in the exposition the duo went the whole hog: the development was both amazing and a little terrifying. The second movement became agitated as a consequence, as if the first still needed to be psychologically processed. To play Beethoven in such a way that it’s still fun even in 2020 is a miniature triumph.
History Repeats Itself
Another highlight was of an extra-musical nature—local resident Bänz Simmen. Simmen runs an internet café in the old village center and occupies the role of tour guide and self-appointed village historian. His two-hour walking tour comes highly recommended. There’s only space for one of his innumerable stories here: apparently none less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was extremely taken with Andermatt in 1779. A wall inscription still bears witness to this fact today, reading: “Of all the regions I know, this is the most dear and interesting.”
Back in Weimar, Goethe immediately told his friend Friedrich Schiller of the legendary figure William Tell. With his drama of the same name, Schiller laid the foundations for luxury tourism in central Switzerland. This narrative of the original central Swiss population came at just the right time: in 1815 the country was guaranteed its neutrality as part of the Congress of Vienna. This was in and of itself a good thing, but meant the loss of a 400 year old economic conduit: mercenaryism. The result was the mobilization of hoards of Brits, who according to Simmen, were offered a “Super Belle Époque” in the 19th century: flares at the devil’s bridge, wellness, cheese, and mountain air. The parallels to today are unmistakable. After decades of dependence on the Swiss military, those in Andermatt are once again turning their minds toward their guests.
Maximilian Fane and his team are also planning to complement the festival program, with art walks through Andermatt’s galleries, or watchmaking workshops. Fane sees two main challenges: “We also really need to launch the concert hall for the local population. A community-oriented launch with free admission. So far coverage has tended to be in the international press.” The second challenge is a little more prosaic: there are no more trains to the valley after 21:29 PM, which is why in the coming season, the focus will be on two more festivals in the winter and summer instead of individual concerts, the hope being that guests will stay for a few days.
The winter festival combined an interesting approach: the idea of playing classical music in a remote location for four days, alongside talks, lectures, and—not to forget—culinary delights. Andermatt’s gastronomic offerings have likewise expanded, ranging from uncomplicated fondue to Michelin-starred fusions of alpine and Asian cuisine.
Ultimately, it’s the coming festivals that will reveal in which direction Andermatt develops as a classical music hotspot. As well as Mendelssohn and Brahms, the summer festival from June 23 to 26 will feature cooperation with jazz musicians, and a concert with Radiohead arrangements. What the village needs, the concert hall has the potential to bring. Experiences, stories, encounters—the kind of fresh wind that blows the pressure from your ears. ¶