On Sunday, Sydney was host to a major public demonstration against climate change, and also an orchestra which had swapped wintery Switzerland for the sunny antipodes. The final concert on their Australian tour brought the Basel Chamber Orchestra to the iconic, but acoustically problematic, Sydney Opera House concert hall. When the comparably sized Australian Chamber Orchestra (who were hosting the Swiss visitors) play in this space, clarity and nuance suffers in comparison to how they sound at the smaller City Recital Hall. This is not to say the BCO was disappointing per se: it is clearly well-honed machine, the players demonstrating the sort of partnership and dynamic variety one expects of a chamber orchestra (although on the evidence of this showing I would still rate the home-grown group higher). Nonetheless, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra having given a rousing rendition of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra in the Hall only a few days previously, it was sonically a little underwhelming.

Sol Gabetta © Uwe Arens
Sol Gabetta
© Uwe Arens

As originally advertised, the first half was to have consisted of two 19th-century works featuring the solo cello – an arrangement of Faure’s brief Après un rêve, and Saint-Saëns’s First Concerto – followed by a purely orchestral second half. For whatever undisclosed reasons, the Fauré was dropped, the order rearranged, and the recent Cello Concerto no. 2 by the Latvian Pēteris Vasks was drafted in to finish the program. This lengthened the concert by a good 30 minutes, and also turned it into more of a vehicle for the soloist.

Not that this was at all a drawback: Sol Gabetta was a passionately committed performer, and a real communicator. Her first entry in the Saint-Saëns was commandingly forceful, but she also demonstrated a lovely warm tone when this was called for later (especially in the second movement). Her technique was rock-solid – the always treacherous octaves in the last movement were immaculate. The string players were reinforced by a quartet of wind players (a much reduced complement compared with the original scoring for this work), and the orchestra was commendably sensitive, so that even in its less resonant registers or busier passages the cello was never smothered.

The Bartók Divertimento which opened the concert was good, but perhaps because I was still adjusting to the space, I felt it was a little lacking in punchiness. The first movement saw nicely highlighted contrasts between the solo sections and the tutti portions, while there was imaginative use of vibrato-less tone in the second movement. The final movement swung between vigour and cheekiness.

Both works in the revised second-half dated from 2012, but that is about all they had in common. Meta Arca by Heinz Holliger (best known as a legendary oboist) began with an A minor chord, about the last consonant sonority I remember. A range of extended techniques and special effects followed: percussive dropping of fingers on the fingerboard, Bartók pizzicati (where the string is plucked so that it rebounds of the wood). There was a waltz-like later section, but since the supply of programs booklets had given out, I was only later to learn that the work contained six tone portraits of concertmasters of the Camerata Bern, the Swiss orchestra for which it was written.

The orchestra was seated during Vasks' Concerto: the reason for this quickly became apparent as Gabetta launched into what was a very extended solo cadenza lasting several minutes. It began with the minimal sound of the wood of the bow striking the lowest string, and grew into an increasingly passionate rhapsody. The musical language of this concerto was in pointed contrast to the previous piece: where Holliger was spikily non-tonal, Vasks was firmly rooted in A minor, although not boringly so. The most effective sections in the work were the passages of slow-burn expressive intensity. When it got more abrasively busy, it felt more routine, with a lot of horrendously difficult passages for Gabetta failing to do much more than confirm our already high opinion of her technique. Towards the end, the soloist was required to sing a few short phrases while supplying a countermelody on the cello, which she did with aplomb. There were a few moments where the orchestra got a chance to show its mettle – one climax was delectably shaped – but the cello was definitely the star of the show. Ultimately, despite many passages of individual beauty, as a whole the work felt over-extended.

The inevitable encore featured Gabetta accompanied by the three orchestral celli. While her introduction of it was inaudible, it felt very similar in spirit to the Vasks, although mercifully much shorter: glacially slow, and again in A minor. There were some nice sul ponticello effects (where one bows near the bridge, giving a glassy sound). A pleasing end to a concert which had many good things but, Gabetta apart, fell short of greatness.