The Basel Symphony Orchestra’s programme had a strong 20th century Parisian flavor, with three works premiered in the City of Light between 1913 and 1932, and featuring no fewer than five French composers, plus one Swiss and one Russian. Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (The Newly-weds at the Eiffel Tower) is the only collaborative work by the group of young composers known as Les Six, or rather by five of the six (Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, Tailleferre, and the Swiss Honegger). The scenario for this ballet was by Jean Cocteau, and is very silly indeed – suffice to say it involves a wedding, a child who massacres the guests to get at the macaroons, and a guest-eating lion. The music is every bit as uproarious as this suggests, and could surely hardly ever have been prepared and played so well as it was here. The eighth of the ten short movements is a quadrille by Germaine Tailleferre, itself containing five short dances. The conductor Dennis Russell Davies realized that this and the many other 'endings' in the work could lead the audience to lose track of where they were, so he obligingly gave a short explanation of this structure just after the seventh movement, and reassured us he would cue our applause at the end. And applause we duly gave, along with some laughter, for the piece was enjoyably frivolous enough to divert any boulevardier during its 20-minute duration.

Alice Sara Ott © Marie Staggat | DG
Alice Sara Ott
© Marie Staggat | DG
Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major shows what can be done when the jazzily virtuosic orchestral chic of Les Six is given an admixture of real emotion and depth. Alice Sara Ott showed fine command of both elements, and the jazz-inflected episodes of the outer movements were relished in the way we might expect given Ott’s avowed admiration for Art Tatum. The extended melody of the central Adagio assai cost the composer much labour to get right, composed he said “bar by bar”, with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet used as a guide to creating a long seamless melody. Ott said recently the structure of this tune makes it hard to play "in one breath", and how she admired the famous recording of Michelangeli in this movement. She certainly had something of that artist’s magical poise in this music, and with a slightly more flowing tempo than in her performance with Maazel in Munich in 2013 (on YouTube). Her playing in this slow movement was wonderfully beguiling, the sensitive rubato always in scale, and imbued with that quintessential Ravelian tendresse. There were fine solos too from the eloquent flute and cor anglais players, in their quasi-concertante roles. Overall Ott’s identification with this work is almost in the Argerich and Michelangeli class.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring might have been the occasion of Paris' – and music’s – most notorious première, but these “Scenes from Pagan Russia” were composed in Switzerland. Certainly these Swiss musicians staked a claim on the work with their tremendous performance. The Rite is still a demanding work to perform, let alone tour, and even more so to one of London’s smaller orchestral venues – the platform had to be extended into the stalls by about three metres. Knowing how lively the Cadogan Hall acoustic is, I removed myself to the very top of the gallery for this second half and it sounded splendid, and still with plenty of impact. Dennis Russell Davies is clearly a master of this mighty score, and his orchestra gave as skilful and committed an account of it as London has heard in recent years. The work was treated as the drama that it is rather than a mere orchestral showpiece, though it certainly showed off the calibre the orchestra has in each department. I would still like to hear a conductor restore the fast tempo for the final Danse Sacrale, heard on some early recordings and on Stravinsky’s piano roll. The steadier speed of subsequent tradition always feels as if the sacrificial virgin might survive rather than dance herself to death. That later broader tempo was the one chosen however, and it still had a certain inexorable cumulative power, aided by edge-of-the-seat playing from the Basel musicians.

This superb concert would have graced one of London's major halls, and deserved a full house. But the hall was less than two-thirds full, so there were more bodies on the platform for the Rite than listeners in the front stalls. Cadogan Hall has now been functioning as a concert hall for ten years, and on this evidence there are no question marks over the quality of its concerts or its sound. Perhaps soon it will feature as prominently on the radar of the capital's concertgoers as it deserves.

****1