Last night’s performance by Steven Isserlis of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor with the Hallé conducted by Daniele Rustioni was not only the best performance of this concerto that I have ever heard but one of the finest performances of any of the pieces of music that I have had the pleasure to hear in the concert hall. The Cello Concerto is one of Elgar's most performed works and one of the world’s favourite cello concertos, yet tonight it seemed fresh and new.

Steven Isserlis and the Hallé
© Bill Lam | The Hallé

In the pre-concert talk conductor and soloist gave some insights into their performance. Rustioni talked about the importance of the beauty of line; Isserlis referred to it as a memorial for a lost generation (Elgar wrote the concerto shortly after the end of the First World War). Both these features came to the fore in the performance.

The sheer beauty of sound that Isserlis produced was stunning. There was a rapt intensity to his playing that was matched by that of the orchestra. When they played quietly it was breathtaking. There was a chamber music-like rapport between soloist and orchestra in which each seemed to be responding to the other’s every utterance. I was particularly struck by the lightness of touch from both Isserlis and the Hallé in the second movement. The rapid changes of mood brought out a certain unpredictability that left the audience guessing where the music was going to go next. The eloquent third movement was almost unbearably sad. The louder, more assertive passages of the final movement turned into a tragic recollection of the past, in no way pompous or bombastic.

Isserlis then treated us to an unusual and beautiful encore: an arrangement of a Catalan folksong, Song of the Birds. His playing was as intense and beautiful as in the concerto.

The Hallé has a long tradition of playing Elgar and also Sibelius. Tonight, on the latter’s 157th birthday, we heard an early work, the Lemminkäinen Suite. When the four tone poems are played together as this evening they have a symphonic shape, even if they work perfectly well on their own. They are based on stories of the mythical hero Lemminkäinen whose adventures are recounted in the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala. These stories were part of an oral tradition until compiled by Elias Lönnrot and first published in 1835 – only 60 years or so before the first version of the suite.

Daniele Rustioni
© Bill Lam | The Hallé

Rustioni may come from a sunny, exuberant Italian tradition but thoroughly understands Sibelius’ unmistakeably Nordic soundworld. He has a physical conducting style, crouching down and leaping up to encourage his player and the results were superb. He is evidently a gifted musical storyteller, evoking exploits of our Don Juan-like hero in Lemminkäinen and the Island Maidens. The dark, brooding Swan of Tuonela is by far the most familiar section of the suite. Time stood still as the Hallé cor anglais player Thomas Davey portrayed the swan swimming in the river surrounding the hell of Finnish mythology. Action returned in Lemminkäinen in Tuonela including the hero's death. Rustioni told us that this was his favourite movement; his control of the varying dynamics was superb. In Lemminkäinen’s Return the hero has been resurrected and gallops home in an exciting conclusion.

The concert had begun with the Manchester premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Solemn Prelude, a work which disappeared after its first performance in 1899 until it was rediscovered during the pandemic and played once more in 2021. An enjoyable start to the evening, but totally overshadowed by what followed.