Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Herreweghe Steven Isserlis [The Hebrides … Scottish Symphony]

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Orchestre des Champs-Elysées
Philippe Herreweghe

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 24 January, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

“Burns Night” is February 25 and there is a year-long celebration of all things ‘Scottish’ upon us – 2009 marks the 250th-anniversary of Robert Burns’s birth – so here was a French orchestra celebrating the so-called Auld Alliance between France and Scotland in fine style under its Belgian principal conductor.

Philippe Herreweghe. Photograph: Michel GarnierOrchestre des Champs-Elysées specialises in music written between the mid-18th and early-20th centuries, “performing on instruments compatible with the period”, to quote the carefully nuanced programme note. On this occasion the number of musicians were a substantial band, numbering 56. Philippe Herreweghe is perhaps better-known for his work as a choral conductor with two groups that he created, Collegium Vocale Gent and La Chapelle Royale. However, with Orchestre des Champs-Elysées – his third creation – he achieved exciting results in music that is all-too-often treated as the blandest of musical picture-postcards.

The Hebrides appears to have cost Mendelssohn considerable time and effort. He may have jotted down the initial 10 bars at the time of his visit to Staffa in August 1829 but the overture then went through several transformations, first as Die einsame Insel (The Lonely Isle), followed by a substantial revision and a change of name to Die Hebriden in 1832 before its eventual publication in 1833. No matter. Like Prospero’s isle in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, Mendelssohn’s landscape remains full of enchantment and ‘rough magic’ with each successive visit, sounds that hurt not and delight. From Herreweghe, and with judicious orchestral seating (6 double basses ranged across the rear of the platform), there was an unusual amplitude to the sound despite the comparatively modest forces employed. The period strings also allowed us to hear more clearly than usual the oceanic swell of the viola and cello parts, and there was a plangently eloquent clarinet solo at the close.

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerSteven Isserlis played Schumann’s Cello Concerto on gut strings, and his combination of gentle introspection and whimsy suits the work particularly well. On this occasion though, for all his virtues, a couple of caveats are in order. A degree of flexibility is clearly essential in Schumann. However, in the first movement there was a tendency to drag an already leisurely tempo, the soloist savouring each passing moment so intensely that the music frequently lost momentum (most notably in the second subject) and – initially at least – Isserlis’s intonation was less than impeccable. Matters improved with a wonderfully inward account of the slow movement, held on the finest of threads, whose lead-in here sounded positively Elgarian and with the sprightly finale, possibly a little too skittish, but with an excellently judged final accelerando. Herreweghe’s accompaniment uncovered a chamber-music delicacy at every turn and in this music the antiphonal violins were a huge benefit.

Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony received a luminous performance as well as the feeling that this is one of the grandest of symphonies, partly because Herreweghe observed the first-movement exposition repeat, but there was also a rare spontaneity and commitment to the playing, the sense of an orchestra almost straining at the leash. Herreweghe’s is a great animateur; the ride may be bumpy and his actual technique inelegant, but he succeeds in communicating his intentions vividly and in energising his players.

Amongst many memorable moments were the flexibility of the string cantilena in the introduction, the nervous quality to succeeding Allegro (marked un poco agitato) and an especially potent storm at the movement’s close. The two central movements were distinguished by a moderate tempo in the scherzo with its delicious throwaway ending, and an unusually flowing slow movement that avoided any hint of sentimentality. The finale was genuinely vivacious, not simply fast, and its peroration devoid of pomposity. In all four movements the airborne, well-ventilated timbres made perfect sense. This may not have been the last word in polished execution but it was unalloyed joy from first note to last.

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