Basel Chamber Orchestra’s Marvellous Mendelssohn but Not-so-Great Schubert

19/11/2017

Mendelssohn, Holliger, Schubert: Stephen Hough (piano), Basel Chamber Orchestra / Heinz Holliger, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 19.11.2017. (SRT)

Mendelssohn – Hebrides Overture, Piano Concerto No.1

HolligerMeta Arca

SchubertSymphony No.9 in C major ‘The Great’

The Basel Symphony Orchestra played in Edinburgh last month. Now their little brother comes to town, and they mostly used their size to their advantage. Their small forces, combined with their natural brass and only a little string vibrato, gave a sound that was clean and precise but also very flexible. They brought a purposeful sense of sway to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, but a hell-for-leather punch to the first piano concerto, with its tempestuous opening and carefree conclusion. They used their cellos and basses very distinctively, however, underlining certain key moments (such as the subtle underpinning of the Hebrides’ main theme) to point up some very intelligent colour, and that meant that the storms of both the overture and the concerto came across as exciting and never mundane. Stephen Hough is, of course, as aristocratic and unflappable a soloist as you could imagine for this music, and I loved his feather-light touch for the finale, in particular. He blended marvellously with the violas in the slow movement, though, underlining the beauty of what must surely rank as one of Mendelssohn’s most seductive melodies.

Holliger’s own Meta Arca, scored for 16 strings, was a study in contrasting methods of string playing, from folksy pizzicati and gentle strumming, right through to agonised sawing and fingers drumming on the neck. Its pained melody, played mostly by the leader, rotates against an ever-changing texture, and it’s certainly fascinating watching the composer conduct his own piece, his gestures looking like choreography that conjures up an un-notatable sound from beyond the page.

The orchestra made a fine sound for Schubert’s Great C major Symphony, too, with a clean, clipped Andante whose purposeful strings bounced against some very characterful wind solos, and a Scherzo whose swaggering main theme led into a Trio that brimmed with sunlit confidence. However, some of Heinz Holliger’s interpretative decisions were quirky at best and wayward at worst. The first movement’s introduction, for example, was fast, which isn’t a crime, but it got faster, suggesting a lack of control, and this led to insufficient contrast with the Allegro’s first theme, which sounded too quiet and not nearly assertive enough. They don’t call it Great for no reason, after all, and no matter what any musicologist tells me I simply cannot accept ending the finale’s last chord on a diminuendo. I don’t care what your performing edition says: this symphony needs to go out with a bang, not a sniffle.

Simon Thompson

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