SCHLOSS ELMAU, BAVARIA
St John Passion
ST JOHN'S CHURCH. SMITH SQUARE About 1,000 feet above sealevel in the Bavarian Alps, an hour’s drive from Munich, is a sweeping, verdant, almost empty valley fringed by woods and mountains. It’s as perfect a sight as I’ve ever seen. And in the middle of it stands a building once described, with reason, as a “moral sanatorium”.
Called Schloss Elmau, it was founded during World War I as a cultural-cum-spiritual retreat by Johannes Müller: a maverick theologian who turned against institutional religion and decided that fresh air, art, and a surrender of the ego were the only routes to true experience of God. He became famous in his time as a spiritual guide and his Schloss attracted some of the finest literary, musical and otherwise artistic minds in the western world. They went there to write, lecture or give concerts – which happened with no applause (because they were more devotional exercises than entertainment) but dancing to the music (because Müller considered concertgoing an active rather than passive task). Despite the dancing, which can only have been silly, many celebrated figures became devotees of Elmau: Wilhelm Kempf, Yehudi Menuhin, Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten. And although the Schloss has changed since those days – it burned down in 2005 and has been re-invented by Muller’s grandson as a five-star spa hotel – the “moral sanatorium” element still holds. People go there to think, recharge their batteries, and hear music – which is played, yearround, by the likes of Mitsuko Uchida, Thomas Quasthoff, Gidon Kremer, the world’s leading artists who in many cases take up residence in the Schloss and make a holidayretreat of it. That’s how the system works, and it’s a joy. If there are more agreeable circumstances in which to experience music (now done with keen applause and no dancing!) I've not discovered them.
When I was there last week Elmau had a piano festival that, night after night, pulled in an extraordinary range of artists and work. I just missed Nelson Goerner and the hotticket young American Nicholas Angelich. But I did catch Herbert Schuch, the German who won the London International Competition a few years ago, playing some awkwardly frenetic Liszt with some super-serene Bach as compensation. And I also caught the brilliantly mercurial piano duo Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen playing an odd repertoire including a set of variations by Theo Ysaye (brother of Eugene Ysaye, the violinist) that anyone on a quiz show would have sworn was Debussy – as indeed it nearly was. But the highlight for me was the thing I least expected to enjoy: a recital by an American duo, Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn, who play the club circuit and present themselves as jazz musicians – although I’d classify them as contemporary avant garde, playing music that would comfortably fit into any programme by the London Sinfonietta or Ensemble Modern.
Imagine a surreal party at which Stravinsky and Webern sat down with the Russian jazzer Nikolai Kapustin, American note-crusher Conlon Nancarrow and minimalist Steve Reich to pay tribute to the pioneering avant gardist Charles Ives – each one in his own style, irrespective of the others – and you'll have some idea of how these pianists played: a wild and wonderful cacophony that, for all its surface sense of free for all, was actually controlled within an elegant, sophisticated framework. They told me afterwards that everything was improvised and was indeed jazz. But whatever label you apply, it was astonishing. They’ve never played in London. Time they did.
As always over Easter, St John’s Smith Square offered a top-quality Passion – this year the Johannes done by the choir Polyphony, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Stephen Layton. I didn’t care for all the soloists but Andrew Kennedy was arrestingly immediate and a strong evangelist. And the whole tone of the performance was uncommonly assertive, driving home the forwardlooking and triumphal aspects of the narrative. This was exciting, and I’ve no complaints. But when we reached Ruht wohl, the peaceful, valedictory final chorus, it was a relief.