It’s an evergreen favourite, but Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture always manages to retain an enduring freshness, especially when heard in the understated, at times almost muted, style of the Basel Chamber Orchestra with conductor Heinz Holliger. Setting sail on millpond-calm waters, the voyage to Fingal’s Cave was one of gentle, measured flow. A genial warmth permeated the BCO’s sound, gently punctuated by the sea bird calls of brass and wind.
Basel Chamber Orchestra & Stephen Hough, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****
Holliger is mainly recognised as an oboist and conductor, with his composition skills less well known. Meta Arca for solo violin and string ensemble served not only as a palate-cleanser before Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1, written the same year as the Hebrides Overture, but as a touching tribute – in the form of six musical portraits – to Camerata Bern concertmasters.
Of these, the angular lyricism of leader Daniel Bard’s solo violin and the bittersweet, swaying waltz were more persuasive than sections where players were required to strum as if guitars or strike their instruments like percussion.
Returning to Mendelssohn, British pianist Stephen Hough was a spot-on match for the Swiss sound. In a fast-moving first movement, balance took a moment or two to settle, Hough’s agile, delicate playing not always heard with complete clarity. However, as with Schubert’s Symphony No 9, which finished the concert, there is an inherently cheerful spirit to this music, one which Holliger brought out in both pieces with precise, no-fuss conducting that was rhythmically tight and expertly paced.