OAE Isserlis Elder

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Symphony No.6 in G minor
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Two of Mendelssohn’s musical travelogues framed this attractive programme; but the meteorological and geographical references are secondary to Mendelssohn’s musical craftsmanship, something that is completely satisfying on its own terms. And Mark Elder and the OAE were wholly in-tune with these splendid symphonic statements.

The Hebrides overture is, of course, also atmospheric and descriptive, and this fine account painted pictures as well as reminding of the beguiling sounds, spot-on balances and integrated dynamics that a group like the OAE can muster. Mark Elder’s thoughtful account emphasised the metamorphosis that the music moves through: from the placid opening, here with rasps of vibrato-less strings ruffling the surface, right through to the storm (and the ‘calm before’) this was a reading that beguiled through a variety of blends and timbres and sounded absolutely ‘right’.

Indeed, such ‘harmony’ between instruments and music suggested that the ‘modern’ symphony orchestra is a restricted, one-dimensional, too loud beast – not necessarily true, of course – and a view exacerbated having heard, the night before, a relentless, brazen Mahler 5 from the LSO (a similar view is expressed by my colleague in his review). In Fingal’s Cave one especially memorable feature was the timpani’s contribution, which sounded like real thunder: no digital sound-effect here. The ‘Italian’ Symphony was similarly compelling, even if Elder’s tempo for the first movement was rather too headlong; the feeling that the notes were being fitted into the space provided was inescapable; a little more time to shape and inflect would have made a crucial difference. Elder took the exposition repeat; it’s an important ‘return’, and not just because of the specific lead-back bars Mendelssohn wrote.

Especially fine were the middle movements: the nocturnal march of the Andante con moto seemed lit by moonlight – and what beguiling recorder-like sounds the flutes produced – while the mellifluous third movement was caught on the wing as well as being crisply certain in the militaristic interjections. The finale’s energy would have had more impact if the first movement had been less driven, but the exhilaration of this performance, all the musicians pulling together, was palpable.

In between came a rare symphony and one of the most intimate cello concertos. Schumann’s lovely work found an eloquent soloist in Steven Isserlis, his cello’s gut strings perfectly analogous to Schumann’s inwardness, with something of a star-cluster of timbres at the most withdrawn moments. Somewhat incongruously, maybe, Isserlis was generous with vibrato, whereas the OAE eschewed it, but this was more noticeable to the eye than the ear. In the finale, a too fleet tempo brought with it something unconvincingly skittish, but there was some deft interplay between soloist and orchestra to compensate.

The Dane Niels Gade (1817-1890) was a one-time assistant to Mendelssohn in Leipzig. Gade composed eight symphonies and was very much his own man in terms of compositional fluency. The Sixth of his eight symphonies proved a real discovery here (providing one didn’t already know it!). Gade’s scoring includes three flutes, which made for some delicious colours and counterpoints (he also requests one trombone, presumably to strengthen the bass line). In the ‘usual’ four movements, the outer ones open spaciously and suggestively and are then propelled with almost unstoppable animation. Did Elder set too fast tempos? Maybe, but great conviction was demonstrated. The slow movement might be entitled ‘At Twilight’ and the scherzo teased the ear with rhythmic perspicacity. An uplifting concert.

  • Concert recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Monday 2 May at 7.30
  • OAE

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