The much-awaited debut of Simone Young with the Philharmonia Orchestra took place on Friday night – alas, still to London’s empty Royal Festival Hall. On its large stage, the fifty or so musicians, fewer than in pre-Covid times for a similar concert, sat well placed from each other. It was satisfying to see the care with which the technical execution of this streamed concert was planned. The stage was evenly lit and the depressingly empty auditorium was never shown, unless visible behind the conductor. Dozens of blue lights on and off stage blended with the general pink undertones; on screen, this offered a pleasing variety of colours. The blue hues changed for the second item on the programme and then again, for the final one.

Steven Isserlis, Simone Young and the Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra

The programme was comprised of three compositions written all within twenty years in the early part of the Romantic era, but performed here in chronologically reverse order. Franz Liszt’s Orpheus, a symphonic poem in one movement, opened the concert. Its musical relationship with the Greek mythological figure with his lyre is somewhat tenuous and is expressed mostly by the prominent part for two harps at the beginning. It was composed originally as a replacement for the overture of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice that Liszt produced during his years in Weimar. Aided by lovely instrumental solos, the orchestra played splendidly, presenting their conductor with the opportunity to put her unique reading on the performance. Young led her musicians with her customarily clear gestures; however, beyond that, she appeared to be satisfied with the flow of the music and changed little – perhaps rightly so.

For the Cello Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann, the orchestra invited Steven Isserlis as soloist – a perfect advocate for Schumann’s pensive world. In a recent masterclass, the cellist advised a student that in performing this concerto, “You have to be a poet, you have to be a dreamer, you have to be a lover” and he was true to his word. This work may not technically be the most difficult in the cello concerto repertoire; its artistic qualities, however, need sophisticated musical empathy.

Schumann left meticulous instructions in his score regarding many fine details of volume, emphasis and articulation. Isserlis impressed by not necessarily slavishly following those markings but presenting them, often as if improvised, infused with his own artistic expression. His confident playing allowed for no technical glitch. The poetry of the first movement was eloquent, and the finale cheeky enough to make him smile repeatedly. A small matter, but in the brief slow movement I missed a more even balance between his and the orchestra’s principal cello’s voice in their moving duet.

Steven Isserlis
© Philharmonia Orchestra

The seldom performed Symphony no. 4 in C minor, "Tragic", by an astonishingly young Franz Schubert (aged 19) was the final item. The opening powerful orchestral chord in C minor, followed by hushed string sounds bears a strong resemblance to the beginning of Haydn’s The Creation, but “tragic” this work does not sound, even if the composer added that name to the score himself. Schubert’s Fourth can sound repetitive, as (unlike, for example, his late piano sonatas or chamber music works) it does not feature many memorable and soaring tunes. Instead, the composer uses a plethora of short motifs and builds them up, by repeating them time and time again, with some changes or modulations.

Despite her wealth of experience in conducting 19th-century Austro-Germanic repertoire, Young did not immediately find the right tools to present this symphony to the best of its (admittedly limited) abilities. She conducted without a score, so her understanding of the music was never in question. Yet, the infinite number of subtle changes (musicians call them agogics) that characterised the playing of Isserlis in the previous number, were rarely in evidence in the first two movements, making them precise but monotonously even in tempo.

Then, blissfully, at that point, Young changed it all and became her well-known energetic self again, as her role seemed to revert from technicus rector to spiritus rector. In the Menuetto, she relished the odd fortissimo sounds on Schubert’s witty upbeats, and clearly had a great time leading the orchestra in the finale’s virtuosic runs to the triumphant final C major chord.

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia Orchestra's video stream