The European Galas see world class orchestras led by figures who 'appeal to the imagination', such as Lorin Maazel, Charles Dutoit, and Gustavo Dudamel, visiting the BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts in the capital of Europe, Brussels, for a suitably cosmopolitan series of concerts every year.
This weekend's Gala featured a thrillingly on form Chamber Orchestra of Europe being led through a varied programme by a vibrant, effervescent Sakari Oramo. From the first sumptuous string gestures of Ligeti's Concert Românesc the strength of the ensemble was underlined - warm, swimming string textures buttressed by creamy cellos conveyed the Romanian folk themes of this early, Communist-circumscribed work with a wonderful vividness. The second movement was more caustic - each snare punch signalled biting shifts across Ligeti's unwieldy rhythms. The third movement prefigures the composer's late period simplicity-in-complexity and complexity-in-simplicity strikingly; two horns, one offstage, introduce expressive, microtonal harmonics in close echo of the other. The band gently takes the material and places it in tender surroundings full of subtle touches of orchestration, with particularly effective use of a bass drum. The more animated middle section anticipates the Finale, which is a brilliant depiction of the mettle of Romanian folk music - sudden shifts across rhythms and texture mark out a jubilant progression through melody and caprice. Oramo is there every step of the way with the musicians; dancing with every limb, he is watchful enough to reinsert an unexpected bejewelled calm at the end, a calm whose edges intimate unrest, particularly in its recall of the between-the-notes looking glass spectra of the third movement.
The violinist Lisa Batiashvili is a frequent collaborator of the orchestra's, and was the featured soloist tonight. In a slightly unusual conceit, Batiashvili and the ensemble performed two works, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1, and Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. The second— curt and playful where the first is expansive and serious — served as something of an extended, formalised encore piece. Batiashvili brought an intelligent and varied sense of interpretation to the Prokofiev. Her first theme was overwrought with slides and insistent wobble, whilst her second, and the subsequent development, had her move into much more spiky, pointed playing. She displayed studied attentiveness to the working through of the thematic material, always keeping apace with Oramo's sometimes unexpected flourishes of phrasing and detail. The remarkable string-led close of the first movement sounded utterly dazzling in the rich tone-colours of this most textured of bands. The Scherzo gave the musicians a chance to flex an aggressive streak not seen until now, whilst the Finale had the energy and tension amped up, with Batiashvili dispatching the dizzying sequence of high trills with authority befitting the performance. Her Saint-Saens cleaved to the same dual sensibility of sentiment and punctiliousness as her Prokofiev. Oramo and the musicians absolutely romped through work’s dancing cadences and sharp standing turns.
The second half of this long concert gave us more focus; Schumann's Rhenish Symphony in a wonderful variety of colours and pictorial resonances. The sometimes string-heavy orchestrations played out as a strength here; with only fifty musicians on stage and the majority of them being string players, the ensemble's peerless string sound indeed made for an unforgettable tour of the composer's rich rhythmic and harmonic details. You often found it hard to catch your breath in the welter of line. The performance had a compelling relationship with silence too; the close of the first movement, for instance, had Oramo delineating a nimbus in gesture, which was answered with an enigmatic turning of the final chord over to silence. The high point of this considerable performance came in the fourth movement, where Schumann calls up Bach and the Cologne Cathedral in a context of solemn worship. As the music flows over the bar-lines, striking moments assert themselves; a wind and brass chorale catches the ear, before the low brass come stonking forward for a glorious interpolation into the immersive string hymnals. The movement sounded like a coloured in, frozen in amber, Bach aria. The Finale brought us back to earth with brilliant reminiscence of each of the earlier movement.
After much applause, Oramo and orchestra's Sibelius encore made for the kind of enigmatic, almost ineffably deliquescent conclusion that you rarely think possible. The band's innate variety and richness deserve credit for such a thrilling concert, but Oramo's assiduity and ardour mean the laurels go ultimately and deservedly to him.
Photo: Sakari Oramo by Adrian Burrows