Is there anybody out there who still thinks that Schumann couldn’t orchestrate, who still dismisses Schumann’s orchestral music as the work of a man who didn't know how to handle an orchestra or, worse, as the product of an addled brain?

Steven Isserlis, Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich
© Tonhalle Orchester Zürich

Recent decades have comprehensively disproved this notion, but if any old believers are still out there, this performance of Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor is one to change their minds. Steven Isserlis is one of this concerto's most high-profile advocates and he played the solo line with a long, seamless cantilena of sound – and not only in the gorgeous, honeyed slow movement. The sharp contours of the outer movements also flowed with a sense of quasi-vocal sensitivity that I found completely winning and throughout, you got an undeniable sense that this is a man who loves this music and is utterly convinced by it. You’ll go a long way before you hear a performance as sweet or as loving as this one and Isserlis's sense of the melodic line was balanced by a keen sense of the music’s structural momentum.

However, the role of the orchestra was every bit as important. For one thing, it really matters that this concerto is played with a symphony orchestra rather than a chamber orchestra: a bigger contingent of strings counterbalances the winds much better and helps to provide a more well-rounded sound, which is very much what we got here. For all their size, the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich met Isserlis as an equal partner rather than a dominant force. Conductor Paavo Järvi steered the whole structure with a masterful sense of phrasing, demonstrated in the clipped phrases of the first movement’s second theme or the brusque staccatos of the finale.

Tonhalle Orchester Zürich
© Tonhalle Orchester Zürich

That blend was also there in Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, although at the beginning, the precision was not. The delicacy of fairy music on the violins was just a little cloudy, and the first big tutti was not quite as on the money as you would hope, although one might guess those things are a natural consequence of playing at a distance while wearing masks. The rumbustious humour of the mechanicals’ music was all there, though, and the sense of mystery at the overture’s end was really lovely.

The rest of the incidental music sounded great. The Scherzo had a lovely sense of schwung with its bubbling winds and busy strings, the Nocturne was a delight made of liquid gold, and the Wedding March had all the ebullience, scale and pomp that you just don't normally associate with pandemic concerts. The soprano soloists were beautifully sweet, and the small ladies’ chorus (19 voices) sounded terrific. Järvi was clearly having a great time as he conducted the piece, a fact you could tell just by listening even if the camera hadn’t regularly confirmed it. 

This concert was reviewed from the Idagio video stream.