OAE/Rattle Steven Isserlis – Dvořák

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Symphony No.6 in D, Op.60

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 15 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sticking with the Ds in the musical alphabet while in town to conduct the Royal Opera House’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (with which he will also make his forthcoming debut at the Berlin Staatsoper), Sir Simon Rattle joined the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for an all-Dvořák programme, in the latest concert of the Barbican Centre’s “Great Performers” series.

With almost as large a band on the stage of the Barbican Hall as in Covent Garden’s pit, six double basses sharing the back row with timpani and trumpets (oddly, the trombones sat in front of the trumpets) and twelve First Violins sitting opposite the Seconds, the OAE approached the 20th-century (Dvořák’s Cello Concerto dating from as late as 1895) with characterful timbre.

Indeed, the winds at the opening of the concerto’s second movement Adagio ma non troppo were in distinctly rustic mood, immediately bringing to mind some al fresco ‘harmonie’ music. Horns (with that new-fangled 19th-century development of valves) could be effortlessly beautiful (as in duet with Isserlis) or as discordantly irascible as their earlier valveless counterparts, but all of this was to miss the point. What we heard was great music-making.

The tone (quite literally) had been set before the concert started. I sat down as the winds were tuning to oboist Anthony Robson’s ‘A’ and, although I at first cringed at the pitch – somewhere in the low 430s, so sounding pretty sour compared to the bright 440 and beyond that typifies our times –, by the time Isserlis and Rattle had joined the band, I had attuned my ear.

While Isserlis’s timbre was sometimes obscured, the concerto – in some respects lighter and more responsive than usual, although not without some wayward speeds or, more accurately, transitions – could hardly fail to weave its magical spell, as prolonged applause (Isserlis typically getting his cello to take its own individual bow, dipping it forward) testified.

I had really gone for Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony. While this performance was not as rampantly extrovert as Sir Colin Davis’s with the LSO recently, Rattle was less intrusive a manipulator in the Sixth than he was in the Seventh with his Berliner Philharmoniker a couple of months back.

The opening movement was superbly propelled (the double basses immediately behind the winds making so much sense in their alternating phrases in the opening bars – an effect that made me sit up smartly) with a spine-tingling, brilliantly judged increase in speed in its final bars and with a similar build-up from the Brahmsian opening to the finale’s whirlwind.

The Adagio – like its concerto counterpart – perhaps revealed the greatest disparity between the lush, homogenous tones of modern instruments and their courser forebears, but these made for intriguing aural observations, not all-out criticisms.

Jan Smaczny, in his programme note for the Symphony, was right to temper the oft-quoted analogy to Brahms with a mention of Beethoven at the end of the first movement. I would go further; I think the opening movement is Dvořák’s ‘Eroica’ – both big-boned, major-key, triple-time statements, revelling in the off-beats. Rattle seemed to make the case effortlessly.

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