Chamber Orchestra of Europe/von Otter, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Reasons to be miserable, part three
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The Independent Culture

The first concert of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's Silver Jubilee Season brought the changing colours of the countryside to the concrete bunker of London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Two composers with unalloyed admiration for nature framed a third whose relationship with the great outdoors was perhaps more that of analysand to analyst. Each was played with a lyricism and dynamism that raises the bar for every other orchestra using this venue.

Though brought up in the Auvergne, Chabrier was a Parisian jusqu'au bout des ongles. The easy charm of a Manet flâneur is threaded through his Suite Pastorale; which has the programmatic neatness of a Couperin pièce de clavecin, the impressionistic colour-wash of a Debussy prélude, and the textural piquancy of Offenbach. Under Philippe Jordan's trim, urbane beat, the robust clarinets and vividly blended strings of the COE matched the sweetness of Jaime Martin's flute with delicious articulation. Very quickly, two things struck me. Firstly, that the balance problems associated with the QEH were entirely absent. Secondly, that violin and viola sections whose back-desks play out as confidently and as beautifully as their principals are rarer than heterosexual men who will ask directions when lost. Why is this?

With only 50 players, pianissimi of an intensity that larger orchestras cannot achieve, and unanimous and continuous engagement with the music and text, the COE's performance of Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with Anne Sofie von Otter was probably the most overwhelming musical experience I have witnessed: a great opera reduced to its essence. Shortly to be 50, von Otter has a charisma, poetic intelligence, stylistic virtuosity and vocal complexity like no other: in turn womanly, boyish, young, old, ageless, sexless, innocent, wise, anguished and ecstatic.

Every word and note of the four songs was dense with colour and meaning, every player alert (even when silent), every transition organic and surprising. Martin again was exceptional. So too was the delicacy of the three double basses, the subtlety of the brass, Bryn Lewis's heartbeat harp, and the blend of the violins. "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" had Schubertian clarity, "Ging heut Morgen über's Feld" Wagnerian heroicism, "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" the heavy habitual sorrow of the blues. Jordan's resolution of "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" - sung by von Otter with eyes half-closed - left little doubt that the succour offered by the lime-tree blossoms was fleeting, that "alles wieder gut" was a gentle lie.

After such a phenomenal collective impersonation of misery, it was odd to return to the bright bliss of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony following the interval. Personally, I could have mouldered in the Mahlerian afterglow for longer, but aside from a slightly disorganised first entry from the cellos, this too was a sublime experience. The laughing cross-rhythms and languid bassoon of the Allegro ma non troppo were sweet as sunshine, the muted strings of the Andante molto mosso hazy as dragonflies, the Peasants' Merrymaking alive with the buzz and slap of wood and gut, the Storm electrifying, the Shepherd's Song profoundly beautiful. I feel incredibly grateful to have heard this extraordinary performance.