Orsen Welles’ oft-quoted disparaging remark on what the Swiss produced with 500 years of democracy and peace – the cuckoo clock – is wrong on many counts. Excellent products such as Lindt, Gruyère, Patek Phillipe spring to mind and given last night’s performance, I would add the Basel Symphony Orchestra too.

Alice Sara Ott © Marie Staggat | DG
Alice Sara Ott
© Marie Staggat | DG
The programme focused on French and English music after the First World War highlighting the increasing importance of jazz and surrealism in music of this period. Mercurial and ironic, the music of the first half consisted of the rarely heard Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel by Les Six and the ever popular Piano Concerto in G major by Ravel, while the portentous and mystical The Planets by Holst occupied the entire second half.

The terse conducting style of Dennis Russell Davies coupled with the precision of the Basel Symphony Orchestra suited the capricious French music of the first half very well. The surrealist plot of the ballet Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, created by Cocteau, recounts a wedding breakfast held at the Eiffel Tour; starting with standard wedding items such as a speech and telegram, it quickly becomes fantastical (and nonsensical) as a lion devours all the guests with an ensuing funeral march. The music (consisting of ten vignettes) was created by five composers (Poulenc, Auric, Honegger, Milhaud and Tailleferre) from Les Six, the name given to the group of six exciting young composers in Paris after the First World War. Davies seemed to revel in the idiosyncrasies of the piece resisting the temptation to over-dramatize the work’s oddities. Davies cajoled an ironic sentimentality from the orchestra with obvious glissandi in Poulenc’s “La Baigneuse de Trouville” and with the huge crescendos leading to musical dead ends in Tailleferre’s “Valse des Dépêches”. Much praise goes to the brass section which impressed with its constantly precise intonation not only in Milhaud’s “Marche Nuptiale” but throughout the evening. There was some excellent tonal colouring throughout this work from the ghostly trombone in Honegger’s “Marche Funèbre” to the jollity of Tailleferre’s “Quadrille”.

Exuding freshness and vitality, German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott set her seal on Ravel’s Piano Concerto from the start. She attacked the busy opening with vim, flying effortlessly up and down the keyboard with glissandi. The rhythmic interjections on the left hand were sharp while the languid second theme allowed Ott to linger lovingly over the piquant harmonies. In the cadenza, Ott spun a magical web of trills and melody, with a finely-timed use of rubato. It was in the haunting second movement that I felt that both soloist and orchestra melded as one. As Ott unfurled the delicate tendrils of melody, I was transported to some enchanted land, lost in its beauty. This serenity was instantly snapped by the flighty third movement. Here, amidst the frenetic filigree of notes, Ott captured the mischievous character lurking in every page of this music. After such a fine performance, the audience clamoured for an encore and Ott obliged with a glistening rendition of Liszt-Paganini Étude no. 5 in E major “La Chasse”.

There was a happy coincidence (or perhaps precise Swiss planning) in the choice of Holst’s The Planets on the same day that NASA announced the presence of water on Mars, though of course Holst’s seven movement work is conceived on astrological rather than astronomical lines. The precision of Davies and the subtle colourings from the BSO made for a fine performance of this war horse. The prescience of Mars, completed before the outbreak of the First World War, still retains its power to shock. The col legno ostinato at the start sounded breathless in anticipation for the visceral might of this god of War. The mighty crescendos from the BSO were shatteringly intense as Davies bestrode the podium like some colossus, one hand raised menacingly above his head.

Venus came wafting in with exotic harmonies, dispelling the spirit of war. Much praise goes to the woodwinds for the precise intonation of this challenging section here. The rhythmic vitality was well captured in both Mercury and Jupiter, the latter boasts a noble Elgarian hymn-like melody in the middle section but which lacked fervour. The bleakness and sparseness of the last three movements are worlds apart from the previous four, being much closer to Holst’s later style. These had mixed fortunes in last night’s performance. The BSO captured the faded glories of Saturn well enough and there was an impressive gradation of dynamics on the bells. However, I felt the manic held sway over the parodic in the penultimate movement, Uranus, while Neptune tended to be more mysterious than mystical. I didn’t hear the off-stage voices first entry on high G at all, though the enigmatic, final chords from the RIAM choir were beautifully handled, dying away to nothing.

***11