Dennis Russell Davies and the Basel Symphony orchestra, in their tour of the UK, have bravely chosen to take with them a generous selection of minimalist works by some of the leading composers in this genre. Sadly, it can still be risky to programme whole concerts of contemporary music. In addition, despite its approachability, minimalism also has a stigma attached to it by the musical establishment, that somehow it’s not ‘proper’ music and this can keep some music lovers at arm’s length. Thankfully this stigma is gradually dissipating as more and more ‘proper’ composers are moving towards finding a style that communicates more directly to their audiences. But last night’s half-full Cadogan Hall seemed to indicate that there is still some way to go. And what a shame that all the seats weren’t filled, as those absentees missed a cracking concert in every respect.

Dennis Russell Davies © Benno Hunziker
Dennis Russell Davies
© Benno Hunziker

The programme kicked off, quite literally, with a spitfire of a piece by Philip Glass called Overture for 2012. Marking the 200th anniversary of the American/British war and the positive impact that war ended up having on relations between the US and Canada, it is a joyously rhythmic piece and a perfect concert opener. Dennis Russell Davies and the orchestra showed their mettle here with a clearly articulated pulse throughout and a balanced orchestral sound. There was no arguing with the piece or the performance.

Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate was next up and very quickly transported us to a very different and rarified world. Written in 2002 as a homage to Anish Kapoor and his sculpture Marsyas, which Pärt saw at the Tate Modern, it is scored for piano and orchestra. Not quite a piano concerto in the virtuoso sense, the delicate contribution of piano nevertheless dominates and controls the direction of the music. As subtly performed here by Japanese pianist Maki Namekawa, the mesmerizing theatricality of her presence, whether playing or not, acted as an important focal point. Despite certain micro themes recurring, it remains a series of episodes loosely tied together. On reflection the impression Lamentate left was of the composer trying to recapture in sound his first experience of seeing the massive Kapoor sculpture, with its huge forbidding trumpet like shapes and its sense of the infinite as you look further into it and around it. Perfectly paced by Dennis Russell Davies, it never lingered too long at one vista or rushed past another.  

The last work of the evening was John Adams breakthrough piece from 1985, Harmonielehre. A symphony in all but name, it remains one of his most ambitious and cogent orchestral creations and one of the greatest American symphonic works. A mélange of very many orchestral predecessors from earlier in the twentieth century - Ravel, Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Maher to name but a few - it still sounds uniquely individual.

The brilliant first movement with its pounding E minor chords that gradually die down and then return to cap the movement was superbly caught in this performance. More rhythmically pointed than the recording by Simon Rattle, it had an additional edginess that seemed just right. The inevitable return to the opening chords was thrilling indeed. Likewise a more flowing tempo in the slow movement The Amfortas Wound reaped rewards in that there wasn’t any flagging of the tension that was set up by the first movement. Some beautifully delicate playing from all departments of the orchestra impressed and the second great climax, with its almost direct quote from Mahler's Symphony no. 10 was revealed as the emotional highpoint of the piece. The final movement, Meister Ekhardt and Quackie, luckily rises above its pretentious title and is a brilliantly put together accelerando and crescendo. Effortlessly paced and played, the final brass fanfares, in this performance, seemed to crown this glorious work with a splendor that was richly deserved.