Edinburgh concert goers are, of course, very spoiled by the cornucopia of regular orchestral concerts given by Scotland’s three professional orchestras. However, it is easy to become complacent and inward looking if one relies solely on local orchestras for one’s musical experiences, no matter how good those orchestras are. Luckily, this is where the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics Season comes in, with a selection of high-quality concerts delivered by an interesting array of international orchestras and soloists.
A half-full Usher Hall shows that listening to music at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon is not for everyone, which is a real shame, as this well-programmed season certainly deserves support. The concert this afternoon is given by the Basel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Heinz Holliger, the latter probably best known as an oboist: his performances of contemporary oboe music are particularly noteworthy.
The programme begins with Mendelssohn’s well-loved Hebrides overture. The opening tempo is surprisingly slow, but Holliger pulls this off masterfully within the context of the performance as a whole. It is a crystal-clear performance, with moments of beautifully crisp articulation, especially from the woodwind. The louder, tutti moments do get somewhat swamped by the acoustic—it is, after all, a small ensemble and a half-full auditorium—but this is a genuinely unique and special interpretation, and shows what the orchestra are really capable of.
The performance of Holliger’s own work for string orchestra, Meta Arca, is also very good, showing off Basel Chamber Orchestra’s excellent strings, especially their talented leader, Daniel Bard. The work itself has a somewhat old-fashioned feel—there is something a little Second Viennese School about it—and it begins too much like a catalogue of extended string techniques. However, once it is in its stride, it shows a great deal of compositional competence and flair, and it is a committed performance by the players, and highly effective.
The first half of the programme ends with Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This is, perhaps, not one of Mendelssohn’s best works, and needs impeccable attention to phrasing to bring it alive. Unfortunately, Stephen Hough’s performance is somewhat sleepy and lacking in nuance, and does not have the clarity that this piece really needs. This is not helped by the sometimes poor balance between orchestra and soloist, and indeed, the orchestra and piano are not always fully together: Holliger does not seem completely in control. An unnecessary and programmatically incongruous encore does nothing to save the day.
After the interval, we have Schubert’s momentous Symphony No. 9 (The Great). Unfortunately, this is not really the contrast the second-half of the programme requires. Again, Holliger brings little to the orchestra, who seem to have switched to automatic, and the result is bland, unstructured and lumpen. The Scherzo is heavy where it should be light, and although at the beginning of the Finale the orchestra make a bolt for the finish line, not everyone is ready at the starting gun. It simply lacks sparkle and finesse.
Overall, the concert is a rather mixed affair, with certainly some exquisite moments, in particular a fine rendition of the The Hebrides, but it unfortunately ends on a low rather than a high.