Ferocious, Visceral Performance Commands Camerata Bern’s “Plaisirs illuminés”

If you want to hear a modern revamp of your favorite intense string music by composers like Bartók, look no further. The Switzerland-based string chamber orchestra Camerata Bern delivers yet again on an hour and fourteen minutes worth of vivacious, temperamental, beautifully executed performance. Featuring six different composers across the 20th and 21st centuries, their newest CD Plaisirs illuminés released in early January to high critical acclaim, and rightfully so. 

The 15-piece ensemble collaborated with internationally renowned violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who has been artistic partner since 2018, alongside globally celebrated cellist Sol Gabetta. Already setting the scene for a virtuosic performance that exceeds expectations, Camerata Bern pushes forward the album’s immaculate quality through programming. The six featured composers all blend a folklore tradition with contemporary nuances. Even more satisfying, the four Hungarian composers Bela Bartók, Sándor Veress, György Ligeti, and György Kurtág are inherently linked to one another through mentorship lineage. Such programmatic choice makes the album inherently feel satisfying and the track order so instinctive.

Three short chamber works by Bartók, Ligeti and Coll are peppered throughout the 16-track album, featuring Kopatchinskaja on each. Particularly memorable is Coll’s LalulaLied, of which Camerata Bern released a video teaser for their album on Youtube. The video featured Kopatchinskaja in clown makeup and acting theatrically just as much as she was playing – reminiscent of Barbara Hannigan in Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabres

However, it is the performances of three large works by Veress, Alberto Ginastera and Francisco Coll make this album so vivid and distinctive. The soloistic capacity of each ensemble member shines through the constantly intense atmosphere musically formed by rapidly moving notes, quick tempos and dizzying use of extremely high and low ranges. The non-stop physical and musical drive across the ensemble is mind-blowing. Few ensembles match the soloistic demand that Camerata Bern consistently reaches: performance with fervor and expressivity with what seems second nature. 

Veress’s Musica concertante per 12 archi was written for Camerata Bern back in 1966 – only three years after the ensemble’s formation – and today’s players perform it with as much earnest and ferocity as the work clearly meant to capture fifty years ago. While it features Kopatchinskaja extensively, as the title suggests, the piece depends on ambitious performance from each player.

Ginaestera’s Concerto per corde (Concerto for Strings) was easily among the most gripping. The fourth movement Finale furioso particularly spirals into what feels like emotional madness via rapidly contorting harmonies played with tremolos, accents, and Bartók pizza everywhere. All the while, the performance remained remarkably tight and controlled – it felt like Shostakovich but on cocaine. Camerata Bern added their own twist to the piece by screaming during the last few seconds of playing, which made for an ear-splitting and knee-jerking, yet oddly satisfying, surprise. 

The titular work Les Plaisirs illuminés, written by composer-in-residence Francisco Coll (b.1985) is a double concerto for violin and cello with chamber orchestra, yet the incredibly ambitious score demands virtuosity from each member of the ensemble. Kopatchinskaja and Coll deliver with exceptional acuity and flawless performative extremity. This work feels like a combination of the Veress and Ginastera, making for a very satisfactory climax to the disc’s underlying narrative thread.

The album ends with Camerata’s Birds, a free-form improvisation by the entire ensemble. The use of high-range glissandos, harmonics, and textural play fittingly paints the image of birds flitting about in an ambient soundscape.

Plaisirs illuminés is a treat for all classical audiences to enjoy, a treat so good that it feels undeserved. The entire album commands a ferocity and passion that will shake you to your core. 

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