27 Jan 2012

Basel Chamber Orchestra, Wigmore Hall

Founded in 1984, the Basel Chamber Orchestra has developed a penchant for programmes which combine the modern and unfamiliar with the traditional and renowned.

Directed by their energetic leader, Yuki Kasai, and joined by tenor Mark Padmore and horn player Olivier Darbellay, they offered a thought-provoking performance at the Wigmore Hall which was musically and intellectually satisfying.

The contemporary Swiss composer Lukas Langlotz was born in Basel, and stStudierte an der dortigen Musikhochschule Klavier (bei Jean-Jacques D√ľnki), Dirigieren (bei Wilfried Boettcher und Manfred Honeck) und Komposition (bei Rudolf Keludied piano, conducting and composition at the Conservatory of his home town, before further studies in Paris and Lucerne. His arrangements of three well-known songs by Henry Purcell, which opened the concert, presented very interesting instrumental combinations and colours - the strings of the Basel Chamber Orchestra extending the original lute accompaniment into a shimmering array of tonal and textural blends - allied to tense, explosive rhythms. Textures were often lucid and light, as the orchestra proposed independent musical ideas beneath and between the vocal declamations.

But, while intriguing, these arrangements were over-complicated and at times intrusive, disturbing the measured declamation of the vocal line and unbalancing the relationship between voice and accompaniment. For example, the textural and rhythmic complexities of the accompanying ensemble rocked the structural foundations provided by the five-bar ground bass in the ‘Evening Hymn’, obscuring the subtlety of the flexible dialogue between the vocal line and the repeating ground the asymmetries of which contribute so much to the expressive freedom and power of the song. ‘Let the night perish’ is perhaps more suited to exaggeratedly dramatic presentation; here Padmore ranged affectingly from despair - “May the dark shades of an eternal night/ Exclude the least kind beam of dawning light” - to devotion, concluding with a poignant prayer that all, from the richest monarch to the poorest slave may “Rest undisturb’d and no distinction have/ Within the silent chambers of the grave”. Padmore’s strong tenor was employed flexibly and with thoughtfully applied dynamic range. Overall, though, the balance between voice and chamber orchestra was not always ideal; there was undeniably much intensity, but little poignancy, joy or peace.

Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is inevitably still haunted by the shadows of its first performers, Peter Pears and Dennis Brain, who premiered the work in this very Hall in 1943. Padmore and Darbellay gave a reading that was personal and individual, while remaining in tune with Britten’s vocal aesthetic which promotes the centrality of the text above mere ‘beautiful singing’. Indeed, Padmore’s own website avowals that “One of the great things I enjoy about singing is exploring texts”. That’s not to suggest that his singing is not beautiful … if occasionally a few of his textual emphases were a little mannered, Padmore’s tenor was always richly expressive, his diction clear without being overly emphatic or distracting. He dispatched the virtuosic demands of Britten’s vocal writing with ease, creating an array of wonderful vocal vistas to depict the changing poetic worlds. The sincerity and poise of the opening ‘Pastoral’, with the horn sensitively echoing and interweaving with the voice, evolved to a heightened dramatic tension in Tennyson’s ‘The splendour falls on castle walls’, and was transformed into an eerie darkness in Blake’s ‘O Rose, thou are sick!’, Darbellay perfectly matching the modulations of vocal tone. Daring and vibrant pizzicati enhanced the mood of apprehension and strain in the Dirge; indeed, throughout the evening the violins’ intonation was superb, and the players introduced much freshness to these familiar songs, if at times their timbre was somewhat austere, even abrasive. The final song, a sensuous setting of Keats’ sonnet to that ‘soft embalmer of the still midnight’, concluded the cycle in rapt intensity.

It’s only a small quibble - and one which may seem uncharitable given the technical finesse of Darbellay’s natural harmonics - but perhaps Darbellay was a fraction too authoritative in the horn introduction, which should surely sound mysterious and nocturnal, shrouded with a touch of vulnerability? The concluding off-stage reprise was, however, deeply moving: tender and poignant.

Darbellay returned after the interval to perform Mozart's Second Horn Concerto, once again producing a rich array of colours, most notably in the redolent lyricism of the opening movement where the soloist was accompanied by rhythmically buoyant, carefully phrased and feisty playing by the BCO. The final work of the evening, Haydn’s rarely performed Symphony No.52, was a little more untidy, although similarly charged with energy and exuberance. The Andante offered respite and relaxation after the stylish exuberance of the Sturm und Drang first movement, the players appreciating the density of the organically unfolding material and Haydn’s harmonic complexities. This was impressively committed playing.

Claire Seymour

Programme:

Purcell, arr. Lukas Langlotz; Thou wakeful shepherd (A Morning Hymn); Now that the sun hath veiled its light (An Evening Hymn); Let the night perish (Job’s Curse).

Britten: Serenade Op.31 for tenor, horn and strings.

Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 2 in Eb K.417.

Haydn: Symphony No.52 in C minor.