The German musician’s fine cello − built by Matteo Gottfiller, Venice, 1727− has a deep-bronze coloured body whose face shines under the spot like a brilliant light itself. But its stage presence doesn’t stop there. Müller-Schott holds his instrument at almost a 45-degree angle, its tail spike fully extended, the top of its body wedged into his breastbone so that the instrument’s lower half comes out to slightly beyond his right knee. An unusual posture, it seems to give him completely free rein of his arms, which move over his instrument with the staying power of a cantilever roof, something I have never seen so pronounced in a cellist.

And the piece he played was a supreme delight. Dvořák wrote the B minor concerto in the mid-1890s while serving as Director of the National Conservatory in New York, and fully intended his cellist friend Hanuš Wihan to play the solo part when it premiered in 1896. When Wihan suggested various improvements, however, Dvořák showed a distinct degree of propriety vis-à-vis his publishers: “I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission.”

As it happened, a mix-up of dates resulted in Leo Stern premiering the piece in London in 1896. Its reception was positive from the start. Even Dvořák’s mentor Johannes Brahms − who had helped the Czech composer correct the proofs for this work − was to have said, “If I had known that it was possible to compose such a concerto for the cello, I would have tried it myself”! Brahms had, of course, done so some nine years before, but it is Dvořák’s “supreme” expression that has seen this concerto remain the real “King” of the solo cello repertoire.

In its first movement, the Allegro, the orchestra begins softly, but moves into explosive modus within short order. In the moments of preparation before his first demonstrative attack, Müller-Schott showed himself immersed in the orchestra’s wave, his head shivering once visibly just before he raised his bow. The first theme is played repeatedly throughout the movement, and the cellist was so sure of his fingering that he looked entirely at home − even relaxed and casual − despite the highly animated phrasing. Refreshingly, he also made eye contact with his fellow musicians on stage, all working as one under the astute baton of the Lionel Bringuier, the Tonhalle’s new and vital chief conductor.

Felix-Andreas Genner’s clarinet, Isaac Duarte’s expressive oboe and Matvey Demin’s flute were terrific embellishments throughout, the contrast between the more earthbound and the celestial among the woodwinds giving the cello an expansive backdrop of rich sound. Indeed, it is the composer’s masterful use of orchestration that hallmarks this work, one which − in this movement − took on the flavor of what I noted as a kind of “Bohemian tragedy.” 

The second movement Adagio was played more slowly at its start than usual, but came on to show its extraordinary charm, great expression and an expansive, sustained tone. Müller-Schott underscored a “pastoral” element here, as if taking us on a kind of audio-promenade through a restorative wood. The familiar melody of “Leave Me Alone,” a song Dvořák originally wrote for voice and piano, was incorporated as a tribute to the composer’s beloved sister-in-law, Josefina, who was critically ill at the time he wrote the piece, and who counted it her favorite of his songs. The cellist’s final and beautifully sustained solo was the quintessence of dreamy, and it was played while absolute silence reigned in the hall.

But it was the final movement that really took my breath away. It begins with a pervasive march tempo, in which the clarinet again excels and the loveable bassoons showed themselves as wholly plump and positive. Such technically brilliant and virtuoso soloists passages were matched by Müller-Schott’s mastery of that highly demanding fingering. He played as if it were a walk in the park, often even diverting his eyes from the fingerboard to look up and out into the hall. His instrument’s sound was sublime, and he tied the knots neatly with his fellow musicians, here at the end, almost in a musical dialogue with concertmaster Andreas Janke, who − along with all the other players − clearly enjoyed every note of the conversation.