With the greatest respect, the cellist Sol Gabetta could easily have popped in to the concert hall from the gym, so toned were her arms and so casual her pulled-back hair! The first clue that this was not so was her striking red concert gown and her position on a dais, which had the effect of enthroning her before she even began to play.
But the first few notes of calm warmth (in Faure’s Apres un Reve) chased away irrelevant speculation and demonstrated why Gabetta deserved her position on centre stage. So indeed did the visiting ensemble, the Basel Chamber Orchestra: about 18 strings, two oboes and two horns which lent depth and balance particularly when the cello played solo. Sol was a soloist from the outset, something that may have surprised lovers of the Faure work … until they noticed that his Apres un Reve here appeared as an arrangement for cello and small orchestra by Thomas Herzog. The quality of the soloist alone justified this re-imaging, although it did change the nature of its original appeal.
The Faure segued into the main work of the evening, the Cello Concerto No.1 by Saint Saens. Again an arrangement, by David Walters, this was the perfect vehicle for Gabetta, and demonstrated how comfortable she was with this particular ensemble. Although all three movements are marked with variations of allegro, there is a famous andante passage in the work that allowed Gabetta to demonstrate the depth of feeling that she and her instrument could call forth. But for the most part, the audience marvelled at her technique, her easy familiarity with the chamber orchestra and her sense of rhythm communicated throughout the work (her foot tapping in the dramatic fast section of the final movement). Altogether it made for a very satisfying listening. There was applause for all and indeed, all deserved it.
Director and lead violin Yuki Kasai had already shown herself worthy of both responsibilities, through her mastery of her instrument and sympathetic management of the Orchestra, here under the auspices of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Kasai’s leadership was put to the test in the next work, Meta Arca (2012) by Heinz Holliger, better known to several generations as one of the world’s leading oboists. This work, however, was for strings, a contemporary piece with sound that at times verged on electronic, and included an angry-sounding pizzicato and hitting the instruments. Kasai’s own solo and control of the ensemble made this at least an interesting work, if not to everyone’s taste.
Bartok was a safer choice to end. His Divertimento for Strings, radical for 1939, was of interest for its many influences and ideas, from rhythmic shifts to appealing melodies and contrasting dynamics. The second section, Molto adagio, was richly lyrical with interest in its gradual crescendo and Kasai’s seemingly effortless trill. Finally, a brisk Allegro assai was not only rhythmic but extraordinarily tuneful (in a folksy, perhaps even bluegrass manner). Kasai led by example in the challenging fugues of this movement, and the orchestra showed skill and humour in the frenetic race to the end of the work.
There was some unevenness in the choice of program, perhaps, but there could be no complaints about the quality of the performers. The program contained a tribute to the Basel Chamber Orchestra from ACO Chairman Guido Belgiorno-Nettis and news of an international exchange which will see the ACO performing in Switzerland next year. This concert, especially with soloist Sol Gabetta, showed the worth of such arrangements – audiences on two sides of the world are the ones to benefit most!