If you are familiar with white wines, you will know what “Hock” is (a linguistic derivative of one of the principal Rhenish terroirs, Hochheim). But if you are a proper connoisseur, you won’t need telling that Rheingau is one of the leading wine-growing areas. Since 1987 it has also been graced by its own music festival, with many concerts held in the 12th-century Cistercian abbey at Eberbach, also known worldwide as the location for the film The Name of the Rose.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© hr-Sinfonieorchester

Traditionally, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony has opened each annual festival. This time the programme featured two composers whose works might be thought to ideally match the austere inner architecture of the basilica with its bare walls, plain windows and stone sculptures. Judging by the enthusiastic applause and foot-stamping which the musicians accorded their departing principal conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, at the end of the concert, he will be sorely missed.

The Frankfurt RSO in Kloster Eberbach
© hr-Sinfonieorchester

There is one composer whose music benefits from the long reverberation time and the symbolism of long arches stretching aloft, but Bruckner was not being performed on this occasion. The audience wore masks but was not socially distanced; yet the modestly sized orchestra was, though without masks. The impact on the audience in the basilica can only be a matter of conjecture. Mics placed close to individual players enabled engineers to mitigate but not entirely eliminate the wash of sound in orchestral tutti. Sadly, the rapid string passages in the Finale of the concerto counted for little. Whenever strings, wind and brass were playing together (including a contrabassoon and tuba in the symphony), definition gave way to a generalised blur. What worked better was the filigree of wind detail in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, as well as the “Dresden Amen” from the soft strings contrasting with the wind and brass chorales in the opening movement of the same composer’s “Reformation” Symphony. This also applied to the contribution of individual solo instruments, such as for extended flute at the start of the final movement. Towards the end, true exaltation yielded to a warm and expansive embrace.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Augustin Hadelich and the Frankfurt RSO
© hr-Sinfonieorchester

It was Ida Haendel who once defined the individual sound of the great violinists as much in terms of posture as anything else. The soloist in the Violin Concerto in D minor by Sibelius, Augustin Hadelich, though technically very assured and especially impressive in the fiendishly difficult double and triple stopping of the Finale, achieved his effects in quite unorthodox ways. For much of the slow movement he crouched almost protectively over his instrument, his eyes focused exclusively on the neck and fingerboard. Often the bowing arm would be held high, stroking the strings in an almost horizontal line, shoulders hunched, the stoop of his upper body at times pushing the violin towards the floor. His body language suggested somebody not entirely at ease with himself. However, unconventional posture in this particular case produced lyrical intensity in the opening movement, far from the iciness others consider appropriate, with a remarkable richness of colour in the cadenza as well as a prayerful inwardness in the Adagio. The Finale eschewed any sense of playfulness for rhythmic solidity, emphasised by the very moderate tempo.

When he returned after several calls to face the audience seated in the nave, the obvious question was whether he would follow convention and opt for something by Bach. This would have been entirely felicitous in such ecclesiastical surroundings. Instead, for his encore he played – to the manner born – what is called “a cakewalk for solo violin”, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Louisiana Blues Strut. Now who on earth would have foreseen that?

This performance was reviewed from the hr-Sinfonieorchester live video stream