The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra returned once again to the Colston Hall to perform three very different works. The title of the concert was “Isserlis plays Shostakovich” and despite cellist Steven Isserlis headlining the evening with a fantastic rendition of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1, there was more Haydn than Shostakovich in the evening.

Steven Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

The pieces were linked together in the respect to the influences of the composer, in which Shostakovich had been influenced by Prokofiev’s pieces, and Prokofiev had been influenced by the works of Haydn. Despite this link, the evening wasn’t presented in this way, and so the link was more confusing. The evening opened with Prokofiev's Sinfonietta followed by Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, which was a demanding first half for the audience and it was a shame that the Shostakovich wasn’t the final thought of the night. The Prokofiev and the Shostakovich were equally weighted in expression but the contrast between drama and excitement, paired them well. Following Shostakovich with Haydn’s Symphony no. 104 in D major “London” made for a rather anti-climactic finish to the night.

Haydn’s “London” Symphony itself was by no means badly performed, but the mood for the evening had been set with such a different tone full of expression and fiery passion that uber-classical Haydn couldn’t compete with.  The light-hearted and humorous impression that Haydn’s music usually denotes, was lost after Prokofiev’s piece took the stripped-back classical inspiration to a further level at the beginning of the concert. This was due to the lack of expression in the music, through no fault of the performers, but merely the style, which didn’t fit into the rest of the conveyed mood of the evening. The orchestral treatment of the Prokofiev was light and cheerful too where the treatment of the Shostakovich was much more sparse and arresting. This is how it should have been as Shostakovich was interested in giving each part of the orchestra a solo treatment, specifically the horn in the case of Cello Concerto no. 1. This solo effect was particularly prominent in the woodwind section and maybe too loud in comparison to various recordings. There was a clarinet line that stood out forcefully, and a couple of bassoon moments that could have been pulled under the sound of the strings a little more than it was.

Isserlis’ performance was the unquestionable highlight of the evening and received a great response from the audience. During the interval, an audience member was heard at the CD signing telling Isserlis how emotional the Shostakovich was, and in response he said, “Imagine playing it!” It requires a lot of different depths of emotion and subtlety that Isserlis grasped very naturally. As a soloist he took the lead on stage and had full command of the moving capability and quality of tone of his instrument. He performed with heavy vibrato presenting, through music, the deep nature of Shostakovich at the time of which he was writing. During the cadenza in the third movement of the concerto, the hall was absolutely silenced with an array of strong downward bows and light faster passages creating a mesmerizing world of emotions.

Conductor Kirill Karabits gave a thoughtful performance that saw him very much in command and aware of the stylistic treatments of the orchestra to play the different styles which was no easy feat but was mastered well. The passion evoked on the orchestral side was most prominent in the Shostakovich where the orchestra really followed Isserlis’ lead in dynamic interpretation. The dynamic range was far more creative than in the Prokofiev, but then, the orchestra had to adjust to complementing the soloist. It was by no means an easy programme. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra impressed with their flexibility to play three very contrasting pieces, but this concert needed more cello solo and more around Shostakovich to match the evening’s title.