It was an evening for showing off. The Basel Chamber Orchestra (being Bartoli and Scholl’s frequent partners) performed Bizet and Rameau, plus a Mozart concerto with conductor Christian Zacharias directing from the piano. A chamber orchestra filling the void of a half-empty Concertgebouw during a rainy summer evening offers quite a challenge to the performers. 

The BCO’s Rameau sounded authentic and precise, allowing to demonstrate its mastery of each of its sections. The strings glowed during the Ouverture and “Rigaudon”. The brass section elucidated the “Menuets”, while the “Chaconne” allowed for all sections to merge together and deliver the orchestra's unclouded cohesion. Here, and in Bizet's L’Arlésienne, the percussion section established itself as the highlight of the evening; during “Tambourins” and “Danse du grand calumet de Pais execute par les Sauvages”, the two striking musicians joyfully filled the room with Rameau’s exotic rhythms, surprising the audience with the bells and beats of a Turkish crescent, thereby completely evoking the exoticism that Rameau intended to convey in his sound.

The dual capacity in which Zacharias functioned during Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 in C minor led to problems. I’ve often experienced the combined effort of the soloist as conductor, but tonight was another example as to why the roles, in my opinion, should remain separate (with the rare exception of Murray Perahia). His performance was far from disappointing, but it could have been better. While sounding pleasent, Zacharias' level of involvement with the orchestra required more attention than he could muster simultaneously as soloist. At one point, Zacharias broke from his concentrated solo capacity by lunging with his left arm in an effort to guide the orchestra, while his right hand continued hesitantly on the piano. Clearly it is an admirable (and fun) challenge for a musician to take on both duties, but it should not be to the detriment of the overall experience. During the beginning of the first movement Allegretto, the trumpet entries sounded mistimed, which briefly led to an off-putting dissonance. After his impressive performance conducting Rameau, Zacharias' lack of conducting resulted in a lack of control over the musicians, although as a pianist, Zacharias did provide a memorable, strangely light-hearted rendition of Mozart’s dark second movement. In the sensitive Larghetto, the reduced tempo and minimal orchestral accompaniment, allowed for Zacharias as the soloist to leave the conducting behind and focus on his instrument. He clearly masters Mozart, but his distracted attention left his performance without any character, even a bit stale. Though, again, in the Larghetto, with his minor involvement in conducting the orchestra, Zacharias was permitted to woe the audience in Mozart’s subtle moods.

After the interval, having left the piano behind, Zacharias conducted an energetic rendition of Bizet’s L’Arlesienne, originally intended as incidental music to Alphonse Daudet's play. While the play has long since been forgotten, Bizet’s expressive score has stood the test of time. Often performed as two suites, Zacharias conducted a selection from the work, alternating the energetic rhythms of the few finales and dances with selections of the pianissimo Melodrames, short subtle interludes that allowed for each section of the orchestra to present its best in its instrumental subtlety. And the Swiss ensemble did just that: similar to the Rameau, the orchestra proved to be finely attuned in the interplay of each section; each felt like a soloist on his or her own. The interplay between the horns and strings was of the highest quality, and together with the percussion section (again), they provided the highlights of the evening. The two percussionists performed superlatively and were allowed to shine again during the two encores.