Sol Gabetta, Sylvain Cambreling / Kammerorchester Basel
Stravinsky / Rihm / Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Casino, Bern, 2020-01-22

3.5-star rating

2020-01-31 — Original posting



Outline


Introduction

About the Concert

In this season’s Concert Tour IV, the Foundation Migros Kulturprozent Classics arranged for three concerts with the Kammerorchester Basel—one in Geneva (2020-01-20), one in Zurich (2020-01-21), and a third one in Bern (2020-01-22). That last one suited my scheduling best. So, at the same time, I got a chance to experience the Casino Bern again. This venue (formerly also called Kulturcasino) had undergone renovation for the past 2+ years. My last (and only) visit so far dates back to a concert on 2017-05-18. In that first visit, I had a seat on the rear balcony. This time, I got the opportunity to sit in the center of row 9 in (parquet seating)—the best possible position acoustically.


The Artist(s)

“Our Stars of Tomorrow”

In past seasons, the Foundation Migros Kulturprozent Classics often organized a half-hour “pre-concerts” preceding the main concert by an hour, typically in an adjacent, smaller venue. These pre-concerts ran under the title “Our Stars of Tomorrow” and served to present young artists selected and supported by the Foundation. In this season, that concept changed, now having the young artists perform as overture to the main concert, on the main stage. This gives the young artists a substantially larger audience—at the same time it implies a shorter performance of around 10 minutes only. In this review, I’m discussing the pre-concert (artists and performance) at the end of the text below.

Orchestra, Conductor

The Kammerorchester Basel does not require an introduction—so far, I have reviewed five concerts with that ensemble (four in Zurich, one in Basel). These concerts featured five different (guest) conductors. This sixth concert is no exception to this: guest conductor this time was Sylvain Cambreling (*1948, Lyon/France, see also Wikipedia). Cambreling (originally a trombone player) started his career in Brussels, then mostly in Germany (Frankfurt, Stuttgart, now Hamburg) and Japan (Tokyo).

Soloist

Sol Gabetta (*1981, see also Wikipedia) was born in Argentina, but is now living in Switzerland. This was my fourth encounter with the artist: I first heard her in a duo recital in Lucerne, on 2017-01-17 (Beethoven, Prokofiev). Three months later, on 2017-04-25, in an orchestral concert in Zurich’s Tonhalle, she performed Shostakovich. Finally, she was the soloist in an orchestral concert that I attended at the Lucerne Festival on 2018-09-14 (Elgar).


Program

As mentioned, the “Overture” is discussed at the end of this report.


Concert & Review

Concert Hall, Casino, Bern, 2020-01-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Concert Hall, Casino, Bern, 2020-01-22 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Stravinsky: Concerto in D for String Orchestra (“Basel Concerto“)

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote his Concerto in D for string orchestra (“Basel Concerto”, or “Basle Concerto”) in 1946, in response to a commission by the Swiss conductor, patron and impresario Paul Sacher (1906 – 1999), on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Basler Kammerorchester, the predecessor to (but not the same as) the ensemble that now performed this work, the Kammerorchester Basel. The concerto features three movements:

  1. Vivace — Moderato — Con moto — Moderato — Tempo I
  2. Arioso: Andantino
  3. Rondo: Allegro

The Performance

The Kammerorchester Basel placed itself in a “historic” (“antiphonal”) configuration, with the violins (8 + 8) on either side of the podium, the 5 (?) cellos behind the first violins, the 6 (?) violas between cellos and second violins, the 3 double basses at the far left. That arrangement is definitely correct for the works by Mendelssohn. When Stravinsky composed his Concerto en Ré, orchestras were typically playing with the two violin voices next to each other, which facilitated the tight coordination between these two voices (at the expense of the “echo / dialog” aspect of the antiphonal setting). This point may be regarded as being of minor relevance for Stravinsky’s composition. The selected setup is more challenging in the coordination, though.

A more anecdotal point prior to the start: after the renovation, the Casino probably received new furniture for the orchestra—and/or the podium was equipped with a new floor surface. After tuning their instruments, and even after the arrival of the conductor, the musicians were making final, small adjustments to the placement of their chairs and music stands. To the amusement (or rather: bemusement) of the audience, moving any of the chairs appeared to caused the chair legs to resonate at a distinct tone (uniformly around C”). This lasted up to the last seconds prior to the beginning of the music—causing smiling and giggling in the audience. It likely was rather irritating for orchestra and conductor and should be remedied soon. Luckily, the orchestra was disciplined enough to avoid any such noise during the performance.

I. Vivace — Moderato — Con moto — Moderato — Tempo I

Stravinsky’s Concerto en Ré is not tonal in the traditional sense (with cadences, etc.). However, it is tonal enough not to upset audiences, the dissonances are moderate (if perceived as such at all these days!), and there is a strongly rhythmic, often motoric component in the first movement, full of “jazzy” syncopes—enthralling music, really! Sylvain Cambreling conducted with a firm grip and clear, accurate gestures—and I was delighted at the engagement of the musicians in the orchestra, which followed the conductor through transitions, pauses, and changes in the meter.

To me, two things stood out in this movement: for one, the music is fairly virtuosic for an ensemble. Actually, I wasn’t quite sure whether were subtle divergences between the two violin voices (thinking about the more challenging setup choice!), or whether it was the acoustics that slightly blurred the articulation in the staccato / spiccato? That’s not a major complaint—I just could have envisaged performances with extra clarity. Only momentarily, hardly obvious in all the rapid action, the staccato seemed on the verge of falling apart. Dryer, more analytic acoustics might have helped here. On the other hand, I was most pleased with the way, in which violas and cellos mastered their highly virtuosic parts!

The Moderato segment is—moderate, indeed, a sequence of short, pleasant motivic fragments and hesitant snippets that don’t pretend to form a bigger melody or theme. Tension, suspended, holding breath up till the next staccato segment. Interesting, fun music, altogether!

II. Arioso: Andantino

Peaceful, serene, beautiful music, cantilenas, full of subtle melancholy—or is it irony that the composer made some of this allude to (Viennese) coffee house music? Frequent cadences as a joke?

III. Rondo: Allegro

This movement makes one suspect that the viola was Stravinsky’s favorite voice: frequently, the violas carry and define the motion with motoric tremolos. The violins often join the viola in virtuosic passages—and then again, the viola stands out with calm, full-sounding cantilenas below the violin’s virtuosic staccatos and semiquaver motion.

That last movement is an enthralling mix of motoric drive, rhythm, contrasts, rapid motion, and catchy melodies in cantilenas: a compact masterpiece, indeed!

Rating: ★★★½


Rihm: Concerto in G (World Premiere)

Wolfgang Rihm
“Rihm Wolfgang Philharmonie koeln 0806 2007” by Hans Peter Schaefer, http://www.reserv-a-rt.de – Own work

The German Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) is one of the most prominent European contemporary composers with a vast oeuvre covering a wide variety of genres, from solo works up to vocal, choral, orchestral, as well as stage works. So far, I have heard three of his compositions in concert:

  • Zurich, 2015-11-21: “Erscheinung — Skizze über Schubert für neun Streicher” (Apparition — or Phenomenon? — Sketch Piece on Schubert, for nine string players, 1978)
  • Lucerne, 2017-09-04: “IN-SCHRIFT” (1995) — the title refers to the process of inscribing music in notation.
  • Brugg, 2018-12-01: “Fremde Szene II” (Strange Scene) for Piano Trio (1982 – 1984). Here, Rihm “digests material from Robert Schumann’s piano trios.

Concerto in G / Concerto en Sol

Rihm is a brilliant thinker. So, his works (those which I heard so far) certainly have a strongly intellectual side. This concerto was written for Sol Gabetta—and Rihm did not just write this music for her, but could not resist “drawing logical lines” between the soloist and the music:

  • the concerto is in G—in French, this translates to Concerto en Sol—a direct reference to the soloist’s first name: the tone G plays an important role in this piece
  • in addition, Rihm used the tone sequence G—A—B♭—E—D—D—A (in German, B♭ is “B”, D obviously stands for T), so, he also inscribed the soloist’s last name into this piece of around 20 minutes.

I cannot (and don’t want to reproduce) the description from the program booklet, except for giving the tempo annotations:

  • Andante cantabile — più mosso — Lento — più mosso — avanti! — meno mosso — Allegretto — con moto, crudo, energico — sostenuto assai

The actual world premiere of course wasn’t in this concert, but in the first one of the three performances, two days earlier.

The Performance

The way in which Sol Gabetta stayed extremely focused, concentrated for a few seconds prior to the beginning gave a pre-taste to the challenges that Rihm’s composition posed for the artists!

The music begins gentle, with both solo and orchestra: long tones swelling, fading, flowing into each other, momentarily in unison, then forming chords, dissonances; melody fragments emerge, the cello “wakes up” with wide-spanning motifs and romantic melody fragments, pensive, hesitant. One characteristic aspect of this piece is in the large jumps, which still allow the notes to form a melody. The cello part and Sol Gabetta’s playing are highly expressive (and highly exposed throughout!), full of verve and emphasis, intense, emote.

Challenges

The solo is highly virtuosic—not through intricate, ultra-fast passages, but primarily in the intonation across huge tonal and position jumps, amidst (and often against) a dense orchestral texture. And Sol Gabetta’s performance was definitely masterful, the intonation firm, virtually infallible. “There is nothing like immediately perfect intonation, but merely instantaneous, quick correction”, as one of last century’s violin masters used to say—and this definitely applies to the solo part if this concerto. With Sol Gabetta, such corrections were the very rare exception and hardly ever noticeable.

The music may sound dissonant initially, but once a listener is “in it”, the dissonant aspect is gradually turning irrelevant, while (in the listener’s mind) the intense cantilenas and melody fragments prevail. That’s particularly true for the elegic segment, where the cello dwells in beautiful, serene singing. As always here, it was covering a very large range, from the mid-range up into the “eternal snow”, up to and above the end of the fingerboard. And throughout, the cello part remains highly expressive, talking, often like a recitative, or like an inner monolog, romantic, simply beautiful! Sol Gabetta lived “in” this music: it’s not just music for her—she was the music.

Accompaniment, Pictures?

Sylvain Cambreling and the Kammerorchester Basel were very coherent and supportive to the soloist. The one quibble I have is that at one point, where the cello ended on a long & high note, the flute was a tad low when taking over that note. It’s not impossible that the cello was slightly high—however, as the intonation in the solo ended being internally consistent, the perception suggested that the flute was off.

A long solo follows—a cadenza? Highly narrative, whining, elegiac, pain, sorrow, mourning. Then, I sensed a scene in nature, with birds (sad birds?) singing, calling. And more narration follows, now intense, lively, a discourse with the orchestra—joyful, often fun, intermittent, serene “flageolet yodeling”, sunshine? A motoric segment appeared full of momentum, and at one point, the orchestra performed in rhythms that are complementary to those of the solo part.

Throughout the piece, the solo part retained its presence and intensity in the dramatic segments, but also in the lyrical, often very subtle singing, where the soloist formed long arches. It was interesting to observe how vibrato and non-vibrato (along with expressive dynamics) served as means to shape phrases and melodies.

The ending, where the cello appears to float away, ascending into a world beyond, was particularly solemn and touching!

Rating: ★★★★½ (solo) / ★★★½ (orchestra)


Mendelssohn: Symphony No.3 in A minor, op.56, “Scottish”

I’m copying this description from the review from an earlier concert on 2018-05-17. In 1829Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) paid his first visit to Britain. He initially stayed in London for concert performances, then embarked on a walking tour in Scotland. A visit to the ruins of Holyrood Chapel at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh was the trigger that gave the composer the inspiration to the beginning of his “Scottish” symphony.

Years passed by before Mendelssohn picked up his first sketches again. He seriously worked on the symphony in 1841, completing it in 1842, and published it in the same year, as Symphony No.3 in A minor, op.56, “Scottish”. The composition features the following movements:

  1. Andante con moto — Allegro un poco agitato — Assai animato
  2. Vivace non troppo (F major)
  3. Adagio (A major) —
  4. Allegro vivacissimo — Allegro maestoso assai

The instrumentation calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

The Performance

I. Andante con moto —

Now, in music that the audience is familiar with, the listener’s focus turned towards the qualities of the orchestra: sound, intonation, coordination. As for the sound: already in the introduction, with its expressive and expansive dynamics, I was somewhat puzzled by the papery sound of the combination of oboes, clarinets, bassoon and horns. A partial explanation for this was in the use of natural horns (cor d’orchestre). Closer inspection revealed an interesting (questionable?) mix of historic instruments (narrow-bore brass, possibly oboes and clarinets) with modern ones (Böhm flutes, probably also the bassoon, string instruments).

Also the violins at times sounded a bit papery, the homogeneity within the voices not entirely convincing. The reduction of vibrato to a minimum, and the use of empty strings along can’t fully explain this. The violins were modern, as were the bows. I doubt that they used gut strings. I did like the tempo, the interpretation, however, with the strong, expressive, dynamic gestures.
★★★

Allegro un poco agitato — Assai animato

It’s probably in Mendelssohn’s orchestral texture, possibly also in the dynamic balance—I definitely liked the sound better in the Allegro un poco agitato part, even though the violin sound occasionally still felt somewhat aggressive. Under Sylvain Cambreling’s baton, the members of the orchestra performed with visible engagement and emphasis, the result was full of verve, depicting the stormy sea, the hurling of the wind: very figurative! Too bad that Sylvain Cambreling left out the repeat of the exposition.
★★★½

II. Vivace non troppo

Here, I felt much more at ease with the sonority of the orchestra: very colorful in the wind solos, virtuosic throughout the orchestra! The ensemble also exhibited very good coordination, particularly in the staccato / spiccato segments in the strings. The performance was full of momentum, tension—enthralling, irresistible: far, far from a routine performance, congrats! In the aftermath, this clearly was the best part of the performance.
★★★★

III. Adagio

In the slow movement, the homogeneity of the string voices seemed much better: the violins shaped beautiful cantilenas (and no, I did not miss the usual, “romantic” vibrato at all!). In the dramatic, intense climaxes of the big arches, the ensemble rose to astounding volume, power and intensity, with incisive, poignant dissonances. Impressive: the sound of the bright brass section, especially the brilliant sound of the trumpets. Orchestra and conductor held the tension throughout, didn’t allow for any dull moments.
★★★½

IV. Allegro vivacissimo — Allegro maestoso assai

A virtuosic movement at a demanding—challenging primarily in the coordination. Sylvain Cambreling didn’t save his musicians. At this pace, the coordination just still was OK (except for momentary discrepancies within the violins), punctuations occasionally started to blur. However, the acoustics may have contributed here, too. I definitely liked the rich, colorful sound of the woodwinds in this movement.

Finally, the Allegro maestoso assai: majestic (obviously!), almost triumphant, grandiose. The beginning appeared to lack coherence (signs of fatigue?), but with the help of the active role of the concertmaster, that first impression rapidly vanished, as Mendelssohn’s enthralling, high-spirited ending pulled everyone along—audience as much as the orchestra.
★★★½

Overall Rating: ★★★½


Encore — Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“, op.61, MWV M 13 — Scherzo

The orchestra’s encore: the famous Scherzo from the incidental music to William Shakespeare‘s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“, which Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847) composed in 1842—a frequent selection as encore, and also a popular orchestral showpiece.

A hit piece closing the evening—presented at a challenging pace, but enthralling and full of momentum nevertheless. The occasionally momentary “knitting” in the violins really didn’t matter at this point—Mendelssohn’s popular piece (let alone the stunning final bars in the solo flute) didn’t fail in its effect on the audience: tension, drive, vivacity…
★★★


Overture: Our Stars of Tomorrow

Edouard Mätzener, Violin

The French-Swiss violinist (who also plays the viola) Edouard Mätzener (*1989, Zurich) recently finished his education, which took him to Karlsruhe, to Yale University, and finally to Basel, where he studied with Barbara Doll. He performs with various chamber music formations. That’s where I have heard him in concert twice already, both times as a member (second violinist) of the Merel Quartet: the first time in Zurich, on 2019-09-22, and a few days later in Wetzikon ZH, on 2019-09-28.

Ina Callejas, Accordion

Ina Callejas (born Hoffmann) is a German accordionist, born in Suhl, Thuringia. She is pursuing an international career with her instrument.

The Performance

It was refreshing to note how open, relaxed, self-assured Edouard Mätzener was addressing the audience prior to starting! The microphone failed, so he just spoke louder and without amplification, freely, and with a clear voice that could be understood throughout the venue! The announcement was actually necessary, as the printed leaflet had nothing on the repertoire for the recital.

Piazzolla: Histoire du Tango (excerpts)

Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992) was named the “world’s foremost Argentine tango composer”—at the same time, he was also a prominent bandoneon virtuoso. One of his most famous compositions is the Histoire du Tango, written in 1986, originally for flute and guitar. The music was later arranged for various instrument combinations.

It took Edouard Mätzener only a few introductory solo notes to “pull” the audience into the Tango atmosphere. And should that have failed with some listeners, when Ina Callejas added her introductory part, we were definitely in Tango mood! She first used the body of the accordion as percussion instrument, then very aptly introduced a tango theme. The violin then joined back in, to a tight interplay between the two parts. Both artists not only harmonized in an excellent way, but they also obviously enjoyed that music, through a slower segment, new themes with accelerando and glissandi on the violin, up to an enthralling ending: a truly excellent performance!
★★★★

Gershwin: Opera “Porgy and Bess” (excerpts)

The American composer George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) has written numerous Broadway musicals, film scores, orchestral works, and two operas. By now, one of his most popular stage works is the Opera “Porgy and Bess”, completed 1935.

As music, the excerpts from George Gershwin’s opera could hardly compete with Piazzolla’s Tango. The key in this performance was in the atmosphere, the melancholic, wistful (and mostly familiar-sounding) melodies. The two artists again performed in perfect rhythmic and dynamic harmony. Edouard Mätzener was totally “in” this music, very firm in intonation, even through the many glissandi—a thoroughly compelling performance, congrats!
★★★½



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