2021 Festival de Pâques, Aix-en-Provence

The Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival, founded in 2013, is establishing itself as one of the leading events of the international classical music programme. However, the Covid pandemic meant the cancellation of the whole of the 2020 edition. With the current on-going restrictions in France, the organisers led by Artistic Director, French violinist Renaud Capuçon, were determined that this would not happen in 2021. They therefore took the brave decision to stream the entire festival for free to ensure that not only would it go ahead but that it could be seen by as many people as possible.

One concert every day for the sixteen days of the festival, 27 March to 11 April, was streamed live from the Grand Théâtre de Provence and the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume in Aix. The world-class line-up included Canadian conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan, Les Siecles led by François-Xavier Roth, Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, pianists Maria João Pires, Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, as well as Renaud Capuçon.

The festival opened with a weekend of delightful chamber music, on Saturday we were treated to Beethoven’s Archduke and Ghost Trios, beautifully and impeccably played by Renaud Capuçon, violin, François-Frédéric Guy, piano and Edgard Moreau, cello. On Sunday it was the turn of Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta and French pianist Bertrand Chamayou. They have been playing together for more than fifteen years and this is evident from the amazing understanding that they have developed together. They performed a programme they have been playing on some of their current European tour dates, in fact I had already seen a recording of this same programme from Venice’s La Fenice. It began with Schumann’s ‘Fantasy Pieces for Cello and Piano’ opus 73, written in 1849, originally for Clarinet and piano. This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s ‘Sonata for Cello and Piano’ opus 65, originally written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. Chopin’s ‘Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor”, opus 65 completed the programme.

Sol Gabetta and Bertrand Chamayou

The first week also saw a wonderful performance by Japanese pianist Momo Kodama of Messiaen’s ‘Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jésus’, a piece she has performed many times and also recorded. She played with a beautiful touch, showing a complete mastery of the composition’s technical difficulties.

The following night’s concert was, for me, the highlight of the festival – a most sublime performance of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ from l’église de la Madeleine d’Aix-en-Provence. Ensemble Pygmalion playing period instruments under Raphaël Pichon were excellent and the vocal parts were beautifully sung, particularly by tenor Julian Prégardien as the Evangelist and baritone Stéphane Degout as Christ. Also impressive were soprano Sabine Devieilhe and alto Lucile Richardot, especially in the duet ‘So ist mein Jesus’.

The second week included concerts by some of my favourite performers: Les Siecles conducted by François-Xavier Roth, Barbara Hannigan and Martha Argerich. First came Les Siecles accompanied by Renaud Capuçon and Bertrand Chamayou in an all Camille Saint-Saêns programme. Included were a well-played ‘Piano Concerto no. 5’ and the effervescent ‘Africa’, but most enjoyable for me was an impressive performance of the well-known ‘Dance macabre’.

The concert advertised as ‘Barbara Hannigan and Friends’ was something quite different. One of the ‘friends’ was French composer and experimental musician David Chalmin, who was responsible for an unusual but interesting electronic treatment of Rameau’s ‘Tristes Apprêts’ from ‘Castor et Pollux’ as well as Ernest Chausson’s ‘Les Heures’. The concert also included more conventional performances of works by Paul Hindemith, Camille Saint-Saêns and Gabriel Fauré.

Barbara Hanningan

Pianists Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, who have known each other since childhood, played a wonderful concert of four-handed works. They began with Mozart’s C major sonata, K521, technically demanding but delightfully played. This was followed by Debussy’s ‘Épigraphes antiques’, originally written for the stage work ‘Les Chansons de Bilitis’, sounding quite oriental. Bizet’s ‘Jeux d’enfants’, a suite of twelve miniatures, made a delightful finale.

Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich