Music: Venezuelan fire in a sleepy spa town

For Anglophones, ‘‘Kissinger” means US foreign policy during the Nixon era. But for German-speakers it betokens an old-fashioned spa town in Bavaria, Bad Kissingen, where for a month through June/July you find Kissinger Sommer: one of Europe’s grander music festivals.

Its audience is conservative and elderly, in town for rest cures and to take the waters. But the programme is discriminating, with a family of artists nurtured over time by the formidable, hat-wearing matriarch, Kari Kahl-Wolfsjäger who has been in charge for 30 years.

It’s a place where people know their repertoire and take a serious interest in how it’s done. Or so it seems from conversations overheard around the town – which, being small, is overwhelmed by its own festival.

The talk when I was there last week was of non-standard ways with standard works. The violinist Daniel Hope had been performing Mozart with the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski; and though it wasn’t the Mozart of anyone’s dreams – the Russians not geared to it, and Hope driving the pace uncomfortably – it was a strong performance. Questioning and bold.

An oddly dry, unsentimental, almost intellectual account of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony completed the concert. And next night the pianist Piotr Anderszewski played more Mozart with the Bavarian Radio Symphony in ways that were, again, surprising. Anderszewski is a maverick but one with finesse. He shapes, he crafts, he thinks. And at Bad Kissingen his thinking was supported by the strangely cerebral, peculiarly spidery young conductor Rafael Payare, standing in at the last minute for an indisposed John Eliot Gardiner. Payare is a second-generation Dudamel – a product of the Venezuelan El Sistema – but less showbiz and more focused. I had no experience of him before this one in Kissingen. But it was fascinating, and I’m up for more.

Equally fascinating is a clever little show about the life and (many) loves of Alma Mahler that originated at the Surrey music venue Woodhouse Copse and has just toured to London. Devised by pianist Elizabeth Mucha, it’s a dramatised recital using singers, actors and projections to evoke the heady atmosphere of Vienna in the 1900s – where Alma played muse to, had affairs with, and occasionally married a disarming number of the city’s leading artists and musicians.

That she was herself a composer added to the colour of her life. And that her most illustrious husband, Gustav Mahler, tried to stifle her creativity is something history should hold against him. Several of her songs are featured in the show. They’re not as good as his, but good enough to prove him very wrong.