Daniel Hope’s absence after the interval set alarm bells ringing. Was he ill? Had there been a backstage bust-up? No; at least probably not. The culprit seems to have been the billing for this concert with the Basel Chamber Orchestra, for it seemed to suggest that the British virtuoso would be directing the entire evening whereas in fact he was just a guest soloist in two first-half concertos.
It was an intimate gathering since only the orchestra’s string sections have travelled to the UK. They cleave to the contemporary fashion of standing throughout and playing to the light-touch gestures of their leader (here Anders Kjellberg Nilsson), a style of music-making that can add vibrancy and vitality to a performance or, just as easily, lead to score-bound flaccidity. Their performance of Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939) had a bit of both. The 20 musicians had the measure of the opening Allegro’s spiky tuttis and free-flowing melodic patterns, but when they divided into sections the first violins in particular were guilty of chugging obediently through the notes. It probably didn’t help that Nilsson had his back to them. Their deficiency was all the more odd since their second-violin colleagues delivered panache and sweep, while Mariana Doughty’s stewardship of the violas ensured that they, too, carried the day.
It’s a cracking work though, cast in three contrasting movements that make a richly coloured whole. The central Molto adagio grows from a seed planted in the low strings and blossoms, if that’s the word, into full-blown Hammer horror: a paragraph of grim, entertainingly baleful music that’s possessed more of fun than foreboding. Both here and in the folksy Finale all was well with the playing, for as the Divertimento danced its way to a conclusion the violinists let their hair fly and their limbs rock to the wit and invention of the music. How do you follow that? A hair-raising encore of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances was just the thing.
Earlier on, Daniel Hope had held court as director and soloist in two concertos for violin and string orchestra: the Bach Concerto in A minor, BWV1041, and the D minor concerto that a precocious Felix Mendelssohn composed when he was just 12. Both showcased Hope the charismatic fiddler, a magician who can spin high-lying musical phrases into the air with a sweetness and suspension that few of his contemporaries can match. Fireworks were plentiful and satisfying too, and in the Bach his interplay with the orchestra was exhilarating.
Finger gymnastics aside, Hope’s ravishing sound lent a sense of rhapsody to Bach’s lyrical Andante, while the Mozartean grace of Mendelssohn’s opening Allegro was a joy-ride for the sprightly Swiss ensemble. Hope linked up with Nilsson in a partnership of equals and milked the pastoral arpeggios for all they’re worth, then teamed with him again for a bonus movement from Vivaldi’s Double Concerto in A minor that was flavoured with a controlled madness.
Frank Martin’s Pavane couleur du temps is ostensibly derived from Perrault’s fairy story Peau d’âne, but it communicates little narrative detail in its lush orchestration. An early essay from 1920, it’s a brief work, eight minutes or so, that’s awash with unorthodox harmonies. Blend Bach’s Air on a G String into Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, then stir in a spoonful of something rich and strange, et voilà. It’s a haunting miniature, and the Basel players did their compatriot proud.
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