The municipal church of St Martin in Rheinfelden – some 20 kilometres from Basel – has foundations that date back to the 12th century, but its interior reflects what it looked like around 1772. Its eye-popping high-Baroque setting made an elegant backdrop to the second concert of Sol Gabetta's Solsberg Festival, wherein the Camerata Bern dipped into the 19th century with a Mendelssohn work, but primarily devoted the evening’s repertoire to works dating from the mid-20th century to the present day, featuring two extraordinary soloists, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Sol Gabetta.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Camerata Bern © Benno Hunziker
Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Camerata Bern
© Benno Hunziker

To begin, some dozen Camerata musicians played Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, a work commissioned by Paul Sacher to commemorate the 20th year of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, which he founded and conducted. The concerto’s Vivace opening was full of trepidation and unexpected intervals as it moved from dynamic to elegiacal in short order, but was never performed within anything less than a seamless transition. The Arioso – no stranger to dissonance – was highly rhythmical and even included some gypsy-like passages. By this point, the rapport among the players was already a given; in signalling the cellos, violist Marko Milenković’s broad smile marked territory, as big as the church was, that was ours: all united in a kind of broad musical democracy.

Accordingly, Kopatchinskaja had taken a humble place in the second row of strings. Before the final Rondo, she looked out at the audience with close to deer-in-the-headlights eyes, making it quite clear that something big was coming. And indeed it was: in the last movement, she and her fellow players pumped to gain momentum, then rose and descended through the scales with an urgency that felt almost like running through a burning house. Fire aside, the Camerata’s non-partisan spirit and dynamism coupled with precision and integrated sound set the markers for the entire evening.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Sol Gabetta and Camerata Bern © Benno Hunziker
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Sol Gabetta and Camerata Bern
© Benno Hunziker

Before beginning the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D minor, Kopatchinskaja explained that the work was sometimes mistaken for another Mendelssohn concerto, but that the one she would play was composed when the composer was only 14. As she began, marking her downbeats with vigorous nods, her lashed-back hair often landed in place just after the notes did. Even in the first movement, the conversation with her violin seemed to suggest it had taken control, that it was playing her, and that the notes were careening out of the instrument of their own free will. Her Adagio was mellow from the start, some of her lines played as close to a whisper as an instrument can come, sometimes even accompanied by what looked animated dialogue with herself. Even if incomprehensible, the sheer theatricality of it was great fun. Mendelssohn’s final Allegro was all energy, not without its humorous interjections.

Alberto Ginastera’s spellbinding Concerto for Strings came after the interval. The first movement was maudlin and like a film score, but the second prominently included the haunting viola and highlighted Käthi Steuri’s resonant and versatile double bass, a treat far too rare in much orchestration. Kopatchinskaja bent deeply over her instrument, almost seeming to absorb it, not failing, however, to subtly signal volume adjustment changes or a more robust lower voice. The frenzied beehive of sound near the end was its own kind of wake-up call.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Sol Gabetta and Camerata Bern © Benno Hunziker
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Sol Gabetta and Camerata Bern
© Benno Hunziker

The premiere of Spanish composer Francisco Coll’s double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra was perhaps the most highly anticipated of the concert’s offer, in no small part because the young composer himself took the podium. Some may say that Les Plaisirs illuminés was sheer cacophony; the locals would call it “modern” and the musicians would call it unforgiving, but brilliant. (The work was commissioned by the Camerata Bern.) At the very least, it’s a work that heralds a whole new fabric in music, one independent of emotional bearing, but rich in compositional architecture. Coll’s direction was largely traditional; sometimes tending just to pace the players with hands hanging in front of him from the wrists, while somewhat over-dramatising conclusions, making and holding a cross with his arms left and right at chest height, for example, as the piece concluded.

Given the sheer volume of sound behind them in the piece, the two soloists were hard put to shine. Kopatchinskaja seemed almost a feral animal after booty; Gabetta was never able to take her eyes off her score. The few instances of concordance were soon overshadowed by twists into chaos. And overall, it was hard to define structure in a work that seemed to have more pulp than heft. In short, while the piece was hugely demanding musically, and every accolade is due the Camarata players and soloists for mastering it, the results were decidedly less rewarding, even to willing ears.

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