The 2017-18 programme of the Zurich International Orchestra series began with a visit from the Basel Symphony Orchestra and for the sixth concert, we had another visit from Switzerland, this time from the Kammerorchester Basel. It’s a reasonably young ensemble, founded in 1984 that, after a little reformation and renaming in 1999, has operated without a chief conductor, and is known for variety of programming. In recent times, it has become associated with singers like Cecilia Bartoli and ambitious projects such as their Haydn venture, which aims to perform and record, in collaboration with Il Giardino Armonico under Baroque maestro Giovanni Antonini, all of Haydn’s symphonies by 2032.

Heinz Holliger © Priska Ketterer
Heinz Holliger
© Priska Ketterer

A smaller project, no doubt to the immense gratitude of the players, is under way to perform a Schubert cycle with Heinz Holliger and this concert at Cadogan Hall featured Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major, prefaced by two works by Mendelssohn and one of Holliger’s own. The Hebrides is one of the Mendelssohn’s most familiar works, but under Holliger it was a piece rejuvenated. Deeply evocative, almost poetic, in the level of imagery that was brought to the piece, velvety textures opened the overture and expressive phrasing was present throughout. Clean delineation saw greater emphasis brought to the woodwind than normal and there was real rhythmic force to the stormier moments.  

The platform was promptly decimated for the next piece, Holliger’s Meta Arca, a work for solo violin and, in this case, fifteen string instruments. It’s music that’s far from easy on the ears, an exploration of the range of a stringed instrument’s possibilities which, true to form, includes flipping a violin round and strumming it. There’s nothing that feels particularly groundbreaking about the piece, but it did provide an opportunity for leader Daniel Bard to show off a well-judged evenness of tone, while the rest of the ensemble displayed appropriate versatility.

Quite how the piece fitted in with the rest of the programme is unclear, but a return to Mendelssohn for his Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor made perfect sense. Stephen Hough is one of the great pianists of our day and his performance was a masterclass in technique and subtlety of interpretation. Teeming flurries of notes poured forth, attack perfectly moderated to blend with the orchestra. Pearly phrasing and pinpoint accuracy gave the all too rare sensation of time slowing and bending round Hough, wafting over the rounded brass. Tempi and dynamics were expertly judged and a unity of approach between soloist and players was clear.

The Great C major can to a certain extent rise and fall on the strength of its brass section. With its advanced writing for trombone, Schubert defined himself against Beethoven’s tamer deployment of the instrument. With one brief lapse aside, the Kammerorchester Basel rose to the challenge, tirelessly bringing colour and emotion to their phrasing. Holliger seemed acutely aware of the symphony’s architecture, highlighting the idiosyncrasies in the structure of each movement and bringing these advances together in a coherent shape, particularly bringing to the fore the rhythmic force of the finale. Beyond his awareness of the whole, however, was Holliger’s consistent attention to the detail of the moment. Woodwind playing in the first movement was crisply articulated opposite the generous, unhurried horns. Slight adjustments in the texture in the second movement showed an eccentric hand at the helm, staccato in the strings giving the piece an organic pulse, while the third was full of elegant pastoralism, more gentleman farmer than rustic peasant. It was not an aggressive interpretation per se, but one that showed deep thought and engagement with Schubert.