The Basel Chamber Orchestra Excel in Martin and Bartók

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Mendelssohn, Martin, Bartók: Daniel Hope (violin), Basel Chamber Orchestra, Anders Kjellberg Nilsson (leader), Wigmore Hall, London. 18.4.2017. (LB)

Bach – Concerto in A minor for violin BWV1041 (?1730)

Mendelssohn – Concerto in D minor for violin and strings (1822)

Frank Martin Pavane couleur du temps (1920, arr.1954)

Bartók – Divertimento for string orchestra (1939)

Following in the distinguished footsteps of orchestras like The Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Britten Sinfonia, the Basel Chamber Orchestra appeared at the Wigmore Hall last night, contributing a decidedly orchestral dimension to what is otherwise predominantly a pre-eminent chamber music venue.

The name of the Basel Chamber Orchestra is immortalised in the history of music for the vision of its founder and artistic director, Paul Sacher. He commissioned many of the great composers of the twentieth century, including Bartók, Henze, Hindemith, Lutoslawski, Strauss and Stravinsky to compose works for his orchestra, many of which have subsequently become classics of the chamber orchestra repertoire.

The first half of the programme was dominated by Daniel Hope, the South African-born British violinist who now makes his home in Berlin. Fashionably reading the music from an iPad perched at waist height, he performed Bach’s Concerto in A minor and Mendelssohn’s early violin concerto in D Minor, rediscovered by his mentor Yehudi Menuhin.

Bach’s concertos for the solo violin have historically formed the bedrock of the repertoire for the instrument, but the challenge of mastering not just the idiom, but also the essence of the music itself, remains as intractable a challenge now as it has through the ages. Although both Daniel Hope and the Basel chamber orchestra performed with great energy and bravado, they proved to be at odds conceptually, and even more fundamental questions such as ensemble and balance were not beyond reproach.

Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto in D minor, composed when he was thirteen years old, is an effervescent and virtuosic tour de force for the soloist, and no less demanding for the orchestra. It requires a level of security and nonchalance that proved evasive, and the music was never allowed to be anything less than relentlessly wilful.

A movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for two violins, given as an encore by Hope, along with the orchestra’s leader, Anders Kjellberg Nilsson, suffered much the same fate as the Bach and Mendelssohn that preceded it.

After the interval Anders Kjellberg Nilsson re-established control of the orchestra, directing coherent and persuasive accounts of both the Martin and Bartók.

Frank Martin’s Pavane couleur du temps, originally scored for string quintet, was one of his first published works, and its evocative heart was stylishly and effusively revealed to the audience.  The orchestra really came into its own, skilfully championing the work of Switzerland’s best known twentieth century composer.

Bartók’s Divertimento, composed for Paul Sacher and the Basel Chamber Orchestra in 1939, concluded this evening’s proceedings, and I imagine that this historic connection might well have been uppermost in the minds of both the audience and the musicians.  Iconic pieces like this develop a life of their own when it comes to performance traditions, and in the seventy-eight years since its composition, Bartók’s Divertimento has been recorded and performed innumerable times, with varying degrees of success and integrity.

The Basel Chamber Orchestra’s performance proved to be an immensely honourable one, and whilst I might at times have wished for greater contrast between the five concertino instruments and the body of tutti strings, the musicians’ commitment to Bartók’s brilliant Divertimento never flagged.

Leon Bosch

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