The programme for the closing concert of Sommets Musicaux de Gstaad had a familiar form: a late twentieth century concerto sandwiched between two classical pieces – a sure sign, if ever there was one, of a “difficult” work sugar-coated by material more palatable to a mainstream audience. But signs can be misleading, extremely so in this case. Georgian composer Vaja Azarashvili’s 1970 Concerto for cello and chamber orchestra is a thoroughly romantic piece – easily accessible and of haunting, lyrical beauty.

Maximilian Hornung © Miguel Bueno
Maximilian Hornung
© Miguel Bueno

The opening notes captivated me and still ring in my head: a pizzicato motif on violas accompanied by the lightest, most ethereal of high ostinati on the violins. The Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra were here in a small format (strings only, 5+5+3+2+1). Led from the first violin by their founder, Radoslaw Szulc, they play standing up with everyone constantly looking at each other, achieving bell-like clarity from some very tight playing. The ethereal opening gave way to sweeping melodies and bursts of violence, fervently played by soloist Maximilian Hornung. He boasts fine technique, able to shift up and down the registers without a glitch in smoothness , generate plenty of dynamic contrast, and to hold securely a long pianissimo line. Some of the orchestral accompaniment is very intense, reminding me of passages from The Rite of Spring. The concerto ends with lush harmonies accompanying a long, yearning motif of rare beauty.

This was the second of two cello concerti, the first having been Haydn’s D major concerto. I can’t fault the performance technically: the orchestra’s clarity was impeccable, as was the balance between strings and the small number of wind players (two horns, two oboes). But I simply wasn’t gripped: everything was graceful and elegant, but the music didn’t get under my skin in the way that the Azarashvili concerto did from its first notes.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 60 was a different matter. Nicknamed Il distratto, it started life as a set of music to accompany a court performance of Le distrait, a comedy whose central character is terminally absent-minded. The piece abounds with references to the characters in the play and is littered with musical jokes. In the first act, a marking of perdendosi (losing oneself) in the score is a cue for the musicians to lose their way and grind to a halt before suddenly remembering where they are and picking up the tempo again with renewed verve. In the finale, the leader wanders off stage altogether and is recalled by his players and spends a few seconds noisily retuning his violin before the finale starts in earnest. The orchestra hammed up these and many other gags with appetite, and the injection of humour into Haydn’s ever-graceful music made for a cheerful end to the official programme.

The encore was Orawa: a 1988 classical piece for string orchestra by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, better known as a composer of film scores (many of them for Polish cinema, but including many English language films such as The Pianist and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula). It was a real show-off piece, built out of a high, clear Polish folk melody set above a base of insistent figures in which all the strings play together, heavily accented, fast and accelerating. The tighter the orchestra, the better the piece works, and I can’t imagine an orchestra playing more together and intensely than the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra did, not even wavering when an already fast piece doubled in speed. We met Poles in the audience who had been reduced to tears. Orawa made a thrilling end to a fine festival.

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