The Basel Chamber Orchestra began its whistle-stop UK tour with an individual account of Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides, conveying two sharply defined images of the composer’s Scottish experiences, Heinz Holliger conjuring a storm-tossed Atlantic swell and a dreamy languor evoking windless calm. Sudden, unmarked, tempo changes brought to mind Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1949 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, yet this unpredictability brought a new fascination to this familiar music. While there were moments when the violinists didn’t all respond as one to Holliger’s spontaneity, imperfect ensemble was a small price to pay for an idiosyncratic account further coloured by Markus Niederhauser’s fine clarinet solo.
Swiss-born Holliger – famous as an oboist – is also a composer. Meta arca (2012) reflects his preoccupation with exploring instrumental capabilities. Contemporary-sounding as this piece is, there is nothing conspicuously new. Built on portraits of six former concertmasters of Camerata Bern, Meta arca comprises an “ordnance survey” of techniques, including stratospheric harmonics and percussive Bartók-style pizzicatos; all very ear-catching with gorgeous sonorities and capped by Daniel Bard’s eloquent solo violin.
There followed Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, Stephen Hough variously charming with vigour, intimacy and sparkle. Holliger fashioned Beethovenian strength for the first movement (emphasising its con fuoco marking), Mozartean elegance in the second and Haydnesque wit to the joyous third, Hough impressing for weight and colour, then delicacy in the Andante – supported by purring violas and cellos in hymn-like phrases – and the Finale’s pyrotechnics were dispatched with stupendous verve.
Such energy continued in a dynamic and buoyant account of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C-major Symphony – first given complete under Mendelssohn in 1839, Schubert dead for over a decade. Holliger’s galvanising direction unveiled it with detail and with his eye also on the bigger picture. Schubert’s extended paragraphs flowed seamlessly even when, in the opening movement, Holliger traded inconsistent tempos (further impulsive gear-changing) for excitement. But it paid off. Whether imposing or tripping along daintily, the Basel Chamber Orchestra was a well-oiled machine, unflagging and superbly disciplined. Incisive rhythms in the Andante (along with a beguiling oboe contribution) teased the ear, as did the controlled, nuanced playing in the Scherzo. The glorious Finale, and its endless vistas, was distinguished by playing of tremendous vitality, the galloping figures brilliantly executed. If Schubert uses the orchestra like a battering ram then Holliger exploited this to full effect – and the resulting drama was compelling.
- Basel tour includes Cadogan Hall, London, on Monday the 20th