tue 28/05/2024

Hewitt, Basel Chamber Orchestra, Bard, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - 22 extraordinary musicians | reviews, news & interviews

Hewitt, Basel Chamber Orchestra, Bard, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - 22 extraordinary musicians

Hewitt, Basel Chamber Orchestra, Bard, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - 22 extraordinary musicians

Rewarding Bach and Mozart and ingenuity in abundance

Only the string players were on tour, and they're a clever lot: the Basel Chamber Orchestra (in full compliment) Lukasz Rajchert

The Basel Chamber Orchestra’s 21 string players on tour are an extraordinary set of musicians. Not only did they begin their programme in Manchester with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, requiring at times one-to-a-part playing to accomplish its multi-voice textures, but eight of them put down their instruments and transformed into a choir for the piece that followed.

That was for Heinz Holliger’s Eisblumen, written for seven strings plus four vocal parts: Bach’s chorale “Komm, O Tod” is heard beneath the very un-Bachian string writing. It was realised with delicacy and a near-stereophonic effect by placing the little choral group in a niche position half-way down one side of the hall, where they read their scores with the aid of flashlights while the string players were isolated on the main platform.

The Vaughan Williams was quite an achievement, even if not one the composer would have expected, since he described the work as being for “double string orchestra”, with only one of them defined as single desks. The remarkable thing in this performance was that the contrasts of tone and dynamic between the two were so effective, despite the lack of numerical difference.

As with the Holliger piece, they’d found an ingenious way to use the building’s structure, placing the second orchestra away from the platform, partly shielded by being further away from the audience than the main group. Intonation was perfect, every expression mark observed with equal care, and there were only brief moments when the textures seemed thin as bow lengths petered out or articulation was less than fulsome.

Those opening pieces were directed by their concertmaster Daniel Bard, as this is an orchestra which, although it has a principal guest conductor, has no conductor of its own at all. It’s a way of making concert music that was pretty well universal until the mid-19th century, and when chamber orchestras employ it today there are always gains in ensemble awareness and shared alertness.

Angela Hewitt cr Bernd EberleFor the two works with solo piano in the programme, Angela Hewitt (pictured right) was also musical director, a role she likes to take. Her first was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14, K449, in the strings-only version allowed by the composer as an option, and, by contrast with the works that preceded it, the players were now together on the platform and making a rich, united sound. It was all very easeful and charming at the outset, Hewitt enjoying the dominance of a Steinway grand without overexploiting its power – until there came a flash of fury in the (harmonically surprising) approach to the first movement cadenza, and that itself was quite portentous. For the Andantino we were back in the world of sensibility and intriguing textural effects, and the solo line became almost vocal in its expression by the final hearing.

That’s one of the attractions of Hewitt’s playing of music from this and earlier periods: she doesn’t stint on expression just because it’s from a pre-Romantic era, but the passion is always finely judged and gracefully expressed.

The finale of the concerto was taken at a skilfully judged tempo (allegro ma non troppo, says Mozart) that gave it just a hint of the world of opera buffa… until the change of metre near the end: it was all fun and games from there.

Bard and the band brought the Rudolf Barshai arrangement of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, renamed as his Chamber Symphony, after the interval. It’s more than a transcription: Barshai adds double basses to the instrumentation (though not always) and contrasts the weight of sound of the full ensemble with eloquent solo lines at critical points. The whole effect is to heighten the drama of one of Shostakovich’s most personal musical statements (one he knowingly described, in a private letter, as “ideologically flawed” – which says everything). That drama was evident in this performance: fretful busyness, agonized interruptions, plaintive laments. It was moving and impressive.

There was more from Angela Hewitt to conclude the concert. Her account of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor (BWV1052) is of course not what authentic-performance purists would want. She pedals practically every note – never to create an artificial or anachronistic haze, but certainly to highlight the articulation she’s seeking, and that itself has plenty of dynamic emphasis where she wants it, rather than “terrace” effects. But it’s always done with respect for the logic of the music, which is what makes her Bach playing so rewarding. Her playing of the solo theme of the Agadio was with a cantabile that would hardly be obtainable except on a modern piano, but it was with restraint, the ornaments hardly noticeable, and with no hint of sentimentality. The final Allegro crackled along and she created a bravura approach to the last ritornello that brought its due reward in audience appreciation.

(And there was a bonus in the form of the serene and glorious Largo from Concerto no. 5, BWV 1056).

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