Basel Chamber Orchestra, Wigmore Hall

Directed by their energetic leader, Yuki Kasai, and joined by tenor
Mark Padmore and horn player Olivier Darbellay, they offered a
thought-provoking performance at the Wigmore Hall which was musically and
intellectually satisfying.

The contemporary Swiss composer Lukas Langlotz was born in Basel, and
stStudierte an der dortigen Musikhochschule Klavier (bei Jean-Jacques D¸nki),
Dirigieren (bei Wilfried Boettcher und Manfred Honeck) und Komposition (bei
Rudolf Keludied piano, conducting and composition at the Conservatory of his
home town, before further studies in Paris and Lucerne. His arrangements of
three well-known songs by Henry Purcell, which opened the concert, presented
very interesting instrumental combinations and colours – the strings of the
Basel Chamber Orchestra extending the original lute accompaniment into a
shimmering array of tonal and textural blends – allied to tense, explosive
rhythms. Textures were often lucid and light, as the orchestra proposed
independent musical ideas beneath and between the vocal declamations.

But, while intriguing, these arrangements were over-complicated and at times
intrusive, disturbing the measured declamation of the vocal line and
unbalancing the relationship between voice and accompaniment. For example, the
textural and rhythmic complexities of the accompanying ensemble rocked the
structural foundations provided by the five-bar ground bass in the ‘Evening
Hymn’, obscuring the subtlety of the flexible dialogue between the vocal line
and the repeating ground the asymmetries of which contribute so much to the
expressive freedom and power of the song. ‘Let the night perish’ is perhaps
more suited to exaggeratedly dramatic presentation; here Padmore ranged
affectingly from despair – “May the dark shades of an eternal night/
Exclude the least kind beam of dawning light” – to devotion, concluding
with a poignant prayer that all, from the richest monarch to the poorest slave
may “Rest undisturb’d and no distinction have/ Within the silent chambers
of the grave”. Padmore’s strong tenor was employed flexibly and with
thoughtfully applied dynamic range. Overall, though, the balance between voice
and chamber orchestra was not always ideal; there was undeniably much
intensity, but little poignancy, joy or peace.

Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is inevitably still haunted
by the shadows of its first performers, Peter Pears and Dennis Brain, who
premiered the work in this very Hall in 1943. Padmore and Darbellay gave a
reading that was personal and individual, while remaining in tune with
Britten’s vocal aesthetic which promotes the centrality of the text above
mere ‘beautiful singing’. Indeed, Padmore’s own website avowals that
“One of the great things I enjoy about singing is exploring texts”.
That’s not to suggest that his singing is not beautiful … if occasionally a
few of his textual emphases were a little mannered, Padmore’s tenor was
always richly expressive, his diction clear without being overly emphatic or
distracting. He dispatched the virtuosic demands of Britten’s vocal writing
with ease, creating an array of wonderful vocal vistas to depict the changing
poetic worlds. The sincerity and poise of the opening ‘Pastoral’, with the
horn sensitively echoing and interweaving with the voice, evolved to a
heightened dramatic tension in Tennyson’s ‘The splendour falls on castle
walls’, and was transformed into an eerie darkness in Blake’s ‘O Rose,
thou are sick!’, Darbellay perfectly matching the modulations of vocal tone.
Daring and vibrant pizzicati enhanced the mood of apprehension and strain in
the Dirge; indeed, throughout the evening the violins’ intonation was superb,
and the players introduced much freshness to these familiar songs, if at times
their timbre was somewhat austere, even abrasive. The final song, a sensuous
setting of Keats’ sonnet to that ‘soft embalmer of the still midnight’,
concluded the cycle in rapt intensity.

It’s only a small quibble – and one which may seem uncharitable given
the technical finesse of Darbellay’s natural harmonics – but perhaps
Darbellay was a fraction too authoritative in the horn introduction, which
should surely sound mysterious and nocturnal, shrouded with a touch of
vulnerability? The concluding off-stage reprise was, however, deeply moving:
tender and poignant.

Darbellay returned after the interval to perform Mozart’s Second Horn
Concerto, once again producing a rich array of colours, most notably in the
redolent lyricism of the opening movement where the soloist was accompanied by
rhythmically buoyant, carefully phrased and feisty playing by the BCO. The
final work of the evening, Haydn’s rarely performed Symphony No.52, was a
little more untidy, although similarly charged with energy and exuberance. The
Andante offered respite and relaxation after the stylish exuberance of the
Sturm und Drang first movement, the players appreciating the density of the
organically unfolding material and Haydn’s harmonic complexities. This was
impressively committed playing.

Claire Seymour


Purcell, arr. Lukas Langlotz; Thou wakeful shepherd (A Morning Hymn); Now
that the sun hath veiled its light (An Evening Hymn); Let the night perish
(Job’s Curse).

Britten: Serenade Op.31 for tenor, horn and strings.

Mozart: Horn Concerto No. 2 in Eb K.417.

Haydn: Symphony No.52 in C minor.

image_description=Yuki Kasai
product_title=Basel Chamber Orchestra, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Basel Chamber Orchestra. Yuki Kasai, violin. Mark Padmore, tenor; Olivier Darbellay, horn. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 18th January 2012.
product_id=Above: Yuki Kasai