Although his presence on stage lasted a mere 35 minutes, Steven Isserlis’ passionate and improvisatory reading of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor served as the saving grace for the otherwise lacklustre programme of the evening, which also featured “Vltava” from Smetana’s Má Vlast and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite, played unevenly by Milli Reasurans Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Hakan Şensoy.

Steven Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Şensoy’s eye for rhythmic precision was obvious right from the opening notes of “Vltava”. The opening murmurs of the flutes and the clarinets (two sections that, incidentally, deserved the highest praise throughout the evening) were directed to raise from the depths in perfect unison to culminate towards the famous main theme of the movement. Now, MRCO is not an orchestra that I am very familiar with, but although they are quite sizeable for a chamber ensemble, the sound that they derived from their instruments sounded tiny (and when pushed by the conductor for more punch, for example in the Forest Hunt, hoarse). The Wedding Dance and the Rapids were salvaged by Şensoy’s timely gestures for unity while the woodwinds carried the Moonlight section to a satisfactory level. There was, however, a general air of ineffectuality within the orchestra that was difficult to ignore.

Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, the centerpiece of the evening, featured a fittingly romantic performance by Steven Isserlis. A soloist’s greatest challenge for the piece, I’m assuming, has nothing to do with the technical demands that Dvořák has put forth. The Concerto is not a bravura work and has only fleeting moments of virtuosity. Instead, what separates a good performance from a dull one here has to be in the musician’s ability to come up with fresh ways to present the main theme in its countless reincarnations during the first movement. Dvořák treats his short but hard-hitting theme like an idée fixe which echoes in various parts of the orchestra and the cello. With a less competent cellist, the music may sound too repetitive. Isserlis, however, employed carefully designed ploys as to timings, dynamics and ornamentations to keep the excitement and the fortitude at a high level. He played his solo sections with varying degrees of intensity to deliver a presentation that suited the composer’s dramatic ambitions. The Adagio we heard was sweet and yearning, thanks to excellent breath-work from the woodwind section -the flutes in particular, complimenting Isserlis’ soft bowing. I wish the strings and the brass could have delivered their parts with equal proficiency during the orchestral punches that intervene in the movement’s lyrical passages.

The evening ended within the safety net that is Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. Though the orchestral sound continued to prove barely adequate, the composer’s dance movements were played in strict precision with Şensoy’s tight grip on the beat. Of course, the work’s playful moments suffered a little, prominently during the Waltz, as a result.

Overall, while the risk-free programme mainly consisted of crowd-pleasing music that was easy on the ears and offered very little challenge for the audience, Steven Isserlis’ performance managed to make it a worthwhile evening.