The relationship between Brahms and Dvořák is one of the most cheering in classical music, the German giant earnestly championing the music of the young Czech prodigy who had thrice won the Austrian State Music Prize. A programme juxtaposing their music should be a recipe for success, and the Philharmonia deployed a luxury soloist in Steven Isserlis for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor. Jordan de Souza had initially been scheduled to conduct the concert, an exciting prospect following an acclaimed Tristan in Seattle, but was indisposed just a day or two before the performance. Dinis Sousa, best known in this country as Principal Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, valiantly stepped in to lead proceedings.

Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Perhaps because of the sudden change in conductor, the concert struggled to take off. Isserlis’ interpretation of the Dvořák was a real treat: famously played on gut strings, his opening had that gorgeous grained tone, slighter in sound but so very rich. His ability to change mood and colour from one note to the other was a delight; in the Allegro the playing was soulful and yet playful in equal measure. There were noticeable problems in the brass section with a slightly weak horn solo, though the section rallied to give a rousing finale to the movement. 

The Adagio was for me the highlight where Sousa seemed to get the pacing spot on, while Isserlis’ playing bordered at times on the prayerful. Particularly appealing was the dialogue between Isserlis and the woodwind section, where flautist Amy Yule stood out for her honeyed and spacious playing. The brass suffered again somewhat in the final movement, though there was much to enjoy in those concluding passages for the cellist, so delicately articulated by Isserlis. At times, the Philharmonia’s sound was somewhat more robust, almost too energetic, which slightly clashed with the eloquence of Isserlis’ playing.

After the interval, we were given Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 in E minor in an energetic but slightly dry performance. Sousa brought clarity of attack, with sections integrating and in harmony, building up to a rousing finale to the first movement. The brass slipped in the second movement, though there was compensation in the mellow playing of the woodwinds. A brisk third movement led into a precise and bold fourth, with warm colours from the violins and another strong showing from Yule. On the whole, however, it was a somewhat clinical performance, despite the dynamism of Sousa on the podium. The movements seemed to be treated entirely as individual rather than as units in an overarching structure. A work that can veer on disturbing here strangely lacked any profundity. Still, much of this can easily be attributed to the sudden change in conductor, and in any event, the performers received a warm ovation from the audience.