|A double-bass player walks to work in the Taiswald|
I started to go to Pontresina with my parents at the age of 12, more years ago than it's seemly to admit. This mountain resort in the Engadin, south-east Switzerland, with its open, sunny aspect and jaw-shattering scenery became their favourite summer haunt; over the decade that followed I must have been there with them for at least six or seven summers. But I hadn't gone back since 1988 and both my parents are long dead.
This being a slightly difficult, landmark, stock-taking sort of year, I had an attack of nostalgia and wanted to visit once more, just to make sure it was still there, still real, and still as good as my romanticised imagination and memory has been making out.
It wasn't. It was far better. And there was no getting away from the music.
Every day, I remembered, there used to be a free concert in the woods, from 11am to 12 noon. The spot is called the Taiswald: a pine glade near the start of the mountain pathways, where the audience can assemble on benches to listen to an hour-long chamber programme of old-style favourites, lollipops, operetta medleys, arrangements, concerto extracts and more. I dreaded walking that way and finding the place had fallen into disuse. Switzerland seems quiet at the moment - the exchange rate could well be decimating tourism - and after all, people don't go to concerts any more, if the doomsayers are to be believed.
Well, they do here. The Taiswald is flourishing. More than a hundred people came to the Camerata Pontresina's concert on Friday, a programme full of juicy tidbits like Offenbach's Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld (which I haven't heard since, probably, my last visit to the Taiswald), Johann Strauss's Music of the Spheres Waltz and Fischer's delicious South of the Alps Suite. Some things have changed with the years: for instance, there's now a printed booklet displaying the programmes for the whole summer. Similar outdoor series take place in nearby towns and villages, among them St Moritz and Sil Maria. The concerts are organised by an impresario in St Moritz who, I'm told, has a personal library of the arrangements.
The musicians arrive to play here from all over Switzerland - we met a cellist from the Zurich Opera, a fine young clarinettist who's studying in Lucerne, and of course the double bassist above. They must contend with the vagaries of the elements - Friday was blowy, with commensurate effect on the music on the stands, which they dealt with by using clothes-pegs (though if the weather is too awful the concert takes place in the church or cinema instead). And the trains go by, whistling, and the dogs trot past, barking, and occasionally newcomers arrive, open mouthed with surprise at finding such an eccentric pastime taking place in the forest - and sometimes they sit down to enjoy the music. As for the piano: it lives in the pavilion year-round, winter included. It still sounds relatively OK.
|Camerata Pontresina preparing to play in the Taiswald|
The Taiswald, it turns out, is an old and proud tradition. It has been going since 1909; in 2009 centenary celebrations were duly held. Among those who came across it and sat down to listen many decades ago was Richard Strauss - who was apparently scandalised by hearing an arrangement of a Mozart symphony for quartet and said it should be forbidden!
Strauss. I didn't realise how important Strauss was to me. I just never thought about it. I took him for granted. But the fact remains that the first piece that switched me on to orchestral music in earnest was his Don Juan. I was given a ticket for a Royal Phil matinee at the RFH when I was 12 and it opened with the tone poem, which I'd never heard before. When it flew out at us, the energy lifted me and held me up and I remember falling head over heels in love with the whole thing on the spot. I wanted to be part of it. Don Juan swept me off my feet. Eventually, having not managed to become part of an orchestra myself, I married a violinist who was - and in whose background Strauss features prominently. Tom's great-grandfather was a Berlin businessman with a summer house in Bavaria, not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and he knew the composer well; indeed, was a Skat-playing companion on summer evenings by the lakes.
Last Friday, we went to listen to a talk in the Hotel Saratz by the Swiss singer, musicologist and moderator Claudio Danuser about Strauss's connection with Pontresina. When Strauss's villa in Garmisch was requisitioned by the Americans at the end of the war, Strauss and his famously cantankerous wife Pauline took off for Switzerland. They moved hotels frequently because Pauline, true to form, kept falling out with the staff. But the family-run Saratz in Pontresina was a special favourite. Claudio had interviewed the proprietor about Strauss's stays there and was full of fascinating stories - among them, the Taiswald occasion mentioned above. Another time, the couple walked into the dining room and found musicians accompanying dinner. "Richardl," said Pauline, "play some Johann."
In the hotel garden is a wooden pavilion with a view across to the mountains of the Val Roseg, along which a favourite walk can be taken. It was in this structure in 1948 that Strauss completed the last of the Four Last Songs to be composed - 'Beim schlafengehen', ultimately the third in the set. I've always felt there is nothing in all 20th-century music that can quite compare with the beauty of this song and its violin solo.
|The pavilion in the Hotel Saratz garden, where Strauss finished 'Beim schlafengehen'|
So the elderly Richard Strauss was looking out at the Val Roseg as he worked on it. You can't really see the view in this photo, as it was very cloudy, but on a good day, when you are walking along it, the valley looks like this:
|The Val Roseg, Pontresina|
It sounds matter-of-fact and so-what-anyhow to tell the story; but when something and somewhere and someone and that music have been as much part of you as your own nose for such a long time and you then learn something new about how it all connects, it feels quite another matter.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
-- TS ELIOT, 'Little Gidding'
Here's the Strauss - sung by Nina Stemme.