Philharmonia Orchestra/András Schiff [The Hebrides … Brahms 4 … Steven Isserlis plays Dvořák]

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104

Steven Isserlis (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This oddly sequenced programme proved something of a curate’s egg. With double basses ranged across the back of the stage and antiphonal violins, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s seating was a distinct plus. Half-a-century ago, Leopold Stokowski, noting that the Royal Festival Hall was bass light, wrote to the Press suggesting positioning the basses across the back of the platform would compensate for this; it works and it is a wonder that so few conductors adopt this arrangement.

András SchiffThat gain was particularly noticeable at this concert’s opening where the basses provided a gentle but powerful Hebridean swell; less satisfactory however was András Schiff’s fussy approach to Mendelssohn’s most atmospheric of overtures, initially extremely relaxed but soon undermined by his micro-management of every detail. As if to compensate there was a moment of stillness in Barnaby Robson’s fine clarinet solo.

András Schiff is undoubtedly a great musician and deeply respected. Whether he was miscast in a work as demanding as Brahms’s Fourth, which calls for a control of line and texture taxing to even the greatest of conductors, is open to question. That he loves the work is not in doubt. However, we can smother that which we love best, and so it proved here. With comfortable tempos every passing incident and luftpause fully savoured and with sometimes tenuous ensemble, this felt like a very long listen. For once Hanslick’s gibe on first hearing the work, performed as a piano duet – “I had the feeling throughout that I was being pummelled by two incredible intelligent people” – seemed peculiarly apt.

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerWith the Dvořák some of the same doubts persisted. After an over-swift opening, some questionable wind ensemble and a mediocre horn solo (no less than five guest woodwind and brass principals were playing on this occasion), Steven Isserlis rushed his fences at his first entry and then made heavy weather of much that followed. Given that he does not have the largest of sounds, it required a far more sensitive handling of the orchestral part than Schiff provided. In both first and second movements the most memorable moments were Isserlis’s extended duets with flautist Gareth Davies, but for the most part he struggled to be heard above the frequently bloated accompaniment. Even the finale was perfunctory although for a brief moment time stood still in the epilogue.

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