One of the pleasures of live music-making is seeing as well as hearing: one gets a sense of a performance as a multi-layered communicative act rather than solely as a sequence of beautiful sounds. In Saturday evening’s ACO concert with the extraordinary cellist Giovanni Sollima as soloist, the visual dimension contributed more than usual to the effect of the whole. This was most obvious at the point when the cellist began to play while walking around the stage instead of remaining rooted to one spot, anchored by the instrument’s spike. But even in the pieces where Sollima adopted a more conventional pose, his performance was vividly physical. At one point, I found myself thinking: ‘This isn’t a concert: this is theatre’, so clearly were senses other than hearing engaged by what was going on.

Giovanni Sollima © Gian Maria Musarra
Giovanni Sollima
© Gian Maria Musarra
The three works involving the soloist were bookended by orchestral pieces by Respighi and Verdi, the latter an arrangement of the opera composer’s single string quartet. The opening item, selections from Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, was given a particularly stylish treatment, with the velvety phrasing of the first piece ‘Italiana’ reminding the audience of the quality of the musicians. The occasional portamento (pitch sliding) effects made one aware that this was not early music, but a modern adaptation of an older style. In both these pieces, the entirely string-based orchestra showed it was capable of raspy attack as well as divine sweetness. Perhaps in the third movement of the Verdi Quartet there may have been some straining after effect for its own sake: the pianissimo sections here were virtually inaudible, just pinpricks of sound. These were doubtless testimony to the instrumental control of the performers, but they didn’t seem musically justified. Just because one can perform at the limits doesn’t mean one should.

Sollima’s contribution to the evening was not limited to his performances: he was also the composer of L.B. Files (2007), a work designed as a narrative tribute to Luigi Boccherini, the great eighteenth-century cellist. Appropriately it was preceded by Boccherini's own Third Concerto, which began with a fresh-sounding opening ritornello from the orchestra. We were then treated to a feast of different tone colours from Sollima. His sound was not particularly strong, but projection was not an issue thanks to the sensitivity of the rest of the orchestral players, who really held back when necessary. This was certainly not a ‘period’ performance: a flexible attitude towards tempo was adopted, and the cadenza employed a broad range of modern techniques. The second and third movements followed virtually without pauses. In the genial third movement, Sollima displayed superb fast passagework, and also a welcome musical sense of humour in his first cadenza, where the arrival on the expected D was deliberately postponed to comic effect.

Sollima created his own work to be a display tour-de-force. From the outset, as he wove his way through his co-performers, sawing furiously at his instrument, and even raising his leg at one point, he drew admiring laughter from the crowd. The music may not have been of any great merit per se, but it was highly effective. Aside from frenzied fast playing in a minimalist vein, and in the fourth movement, equally lively pizzicato passages, a whole range of extended techniques was used: bowing below the bridge, tapping on the body of the instrument, wedging a second bow between the strings, using two bows at once. Sollima incorporated pre-recorded singing and poetry in the last two movements, and at times he himself indulged in a little scat singing. The orchestra, too, got to let out a few yells in places, which they clearly enjoyed. The level of applause this met with demonstrated that the fiery performer had made a big impression on the audience.

After the interval came the second eighteenth-century work of the night: Haydn’s celebrated Concerto in C major, a repertory staple for the instrument. Sollima toned down his exuberance and gave a respectful and highly polished rendition. Nonetheless, every emotion was vividly expressed on his face and in his gestures, and his communication with the orchestra was extraordinary. Not for him a romanticised intensity of sound with omnipresent vibrato in the second movement: instead the tone was shaped and nuanced. Sollima is clearly a risk-taker, and not everything was perfect, but such was the conviction of the music making that one was more than happy to overlook a few fluffs. In the finale, there was again a daring flexibility of tempo, and the whole was brought off with panache. He is clearly both musician and showman, and his adventurous music-making (ably supported by the ACO) made this a night to remember.