tue 12/12/2017

Hough, Basel CO, Holliger, Cadogan Hall review - heavenly lengths in Schubert | reviews, news & interviews

Hough, Basel CO, Holliger, Cadogan Hall review - heavenly lengths in Schubert

Hough, Basel CO, Holliger, Cadogan Hall review - heavenly lengths in Schubert

A well-drilled Swiss band takes on the ‘Great’ C major Symphony – every note of it

A musician to his fingertips: Heinz Holliger, oboist turned masterly conductor of Schubert© Daniel Vass

Before the age of photography, people and places were recorded in ink or paint or sound. The process of recording was not instant, could not be rushed, and produced by its nature an experience of layers. On the last leg of a brief UK tour, the Basel Chamber Orchestra brought to Cadogan Hall two landscapes and two portraits, in performances notably true to life and unified as harmoniously as a Rothko quartet by the ensemble’s own cultivated tonal palette.

Timbres were applied neat and raw to Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, and Heinz Holliger had left the canvas unprimed: the effect was not a subtle mingling of symphonic seascape and sonata-form structure as the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Pablo Heras-Casado achieved at this year’s Proms, but rather more of a bold juxtaposition, strong on Mendelssohn’s tic for march rhythms, prosaic and rhythmically literal in a becalmed introduction.

The first portrait was actually a set of six brief sketches, by Holliger himself: Meta-Arca, perhaps a pretentiously abstract title to English eyes, belied by the deft, old-fashioned craft of his writing. Holliger’s purported subjects are six previous concertmasters of this orchestra (and its parent ensemble founded by Paul Sacher in 1926), each with their own playing style, clipped or extravagant, and central repertoire: baroque, classical, romantic and neoclassical gestures are all captured in snapshot and refracted through Holliger’s own modernist lens. As soloist and leader, Daniel Bard stepped into his predecessors’ shoes as if they had been made for him.

Stephen HoughCan a classically formed piano concerto really be counted as a portrait of anyone? So it seemed here, in an account of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto that captured the 20-something composer in the round. The notion of composing a self-portrait would have appalled the fastidious Mendelssohn, but he was always and only ever himself, taking on life with a resolve as lightly worn as it was determined. Stephen Hough (pictured right) was a marvellously apt and agile soloist, taking his fun seriously and phrasing on air even in the central Andante where he deserved rather more refined accompaniment from the Basle winds.

The Basel CO is a hybrid ensemble, and when Holliger turned the ignition key on the "Great" C major Symphony the period horns responded with a rather throaty cough. Thereafter, however, Schubert’s late "summer journey" was undertaken with untiring energy and a zest for its almost endless joys. Schubert conceived the symphony on a long walking tour of Upper Austria and Holliger’s sure-footed direction was rooted with the wisdom of his 78 years in a keen appreciation for landscape, both physical and symphonic. It probably helps to have at hand Alpine musicians who are used to getting mud on their boots. Clarinets in the scherzo whooped away like boozy lads breaking their hike with a long lunch.

Holliger took every last one of the repeats that gave Robert Schumann raptures at the symphony’s "heavenly lengths" – even the four-minute reprise of the last movement’s exposition that has been the torment of a few string sections down the years, who arrive at the end of the scherzo with their right elbow already dropping off, only to find the equivalent of a 10-mile yomp still ahead of them. As if to prove the point and make a subversive, Haydnesque protest, leader Bard’s violin dramatically fell to bits halfway through the finale, strings unsprung, neck rolling on the floor: like a soprano chorus member whose head falls off, only with less blood. However, the Basel players had left enough in the tank for Holliger to bring the symphony to a terrific culmination in his unfussy way: journey’s end achieved at length but in triumph.  

@PeterQuantrill

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