I arrived in the small town of La Roque d'Anthéron, 30 minutes drive from Aix-en-Provence, anticipating an evening of the cream of the French crop of young chamber music ensembles before pushing on to Montpélier, Perpignan and Finestret for 10 days of rest, relaxation and a renewal of my attempt at the great American novel.
The setting in the charming Roque, however, its name of obscure provenance originating in the 12th century, not taken from the Tolkien character, "the Lord of Gifts," seduced me to such an extent with its music, its people and its food (particularly the superb restaurant, Le Bocage), that I stayed an additional three days and heard a succession of performances that took my breath away.
The music should not have been a surprise. Celebrating its 31st year, the month-long La Roque d'Anthéron International Piano Festival is one of the world's premiere keyboard festivals featuring a dazzling variety and breadth of pianists.
Equally amazing was the ability of the sell-out audiences at the outdoor amphitheater in the celestial vault of the Parc du Château de Florans, a venue bordered by 365 plane trees and a sprinkling of sequoia redwoods, to accommodate and enjoy the extraordinary range of performances, often on two different programs per evening, from solo recitals of the most intimate nature to the great concertos with orchestra.
The most extraordinary night was the last when teenaged sensation Guillaume Vincent looked deep into Beethoven's Sonata Op. 27 no. 1, composed in 1800 and 1801, and evoked the composer's harmonic vision rising out of the conventions of the previous century. It was a performance of a lifetime and was followed by similarly reflective and illuminating readings of Brahms and Liszt.
The contrast later that night was Andrei Korobeinikov, who had the eccentric stilted look of a character out of Dickens, taking Shostakovich (the dazzling, mercurial Second Piano Concerto) and Tchaikovsky (the always awesome First Piano Concerto) by storm, with the powerful, eloquent partnering by the Orchestre de Pau Pays de Béarn conducted by an incomparably balletic Fayçal Karoui. At the end the audience erupted in roars and applause that must have been heard in Marseille.
Two night before, another Russian, Sergei Tarasov, had begun with readings of Mozart (one of the composer's complex, improvisatory fantasies) and Beethoven (the iconic Appassionata Sonata) that stressed blocks of opposing sound and emotion. It was deeply serious playing, even over the top, but it revealed the music's raw power in startling detail.
Later in the evening, Canadian Louis Lortie threw the audience into total disarray with incendiary readings of both sets of Chopin's Études. While Lortie raised all sorts of questions about the relative value of surface brilliance vs. musical profundity, not to mention implicitly posing the Alice in Wonderland question of what Chopin actually composed these studies for if not to be able to play these studies..., the effect was electrifying from the first note to the last.
On the intervening night, two distinguished piano duos played for nearly three hours starting with Nikolaï Lugansky and Vadim Rudenko taking on Arensky, Ravel (an emotionally-drenched transformation of La Valse) and Rachmaninoff (a huge, romantic performance of the Op. 45 Symphonic Dances), and Dezsö Ránki and Edit Klukon using an unpublished and fabled arrangement of Liszt's Dante Symphony to explore all the philosophical, wayward and occasionally radiant moments of the composer's response (and its 21st century heavy-duty implications) to Goethe's eternal tragedy.
The nearly five-hour, Monday night apéritif we had originally come for, featuring some of the world's greatest headliners plus a generous sprinkling of future stars, included sumptuous performances by violinist Clémence de Forceville and cellist Honorine Schaeffer, the latter in a reading of the outer movements of Brahms E Minor Cello Sonata that, while seamless in its phrasing, reached deeply into the music's emotional core.
Meanwhile, while strolling the historic streets and alleys, I came across one of Peugeot's stunning limited edition RCZs (only 200 produced) sports cars. I couldn't drive it, but just looking at it was like looking at great art. Zoom, zoom, zoom, indeed!