In a recent interview with Bachtrack, virtuoso cellist Steven Isserlis confessed to a dread of broadcasting, even when he is playing a piece such as the Schumann concerto, a work he knows intimately. “I’m always convinced I will forget the next note,” he said. “I have had this constant fear since I had a memory lapse in my early twenties. I know every note of the Schumann but I’m never blasé. In fact, I’m terrified.”

Steven Isserlis and Sakari Oramo with the BBC Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan
Steven Isserlis and Sakari Oramo with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Allan

So, would there be any hint of that terror when he played the concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at London’s Barbican, with Radio 3’s microphones all around him? He certainly displayed several deep emotions – gravity, levity and desolation among them – but terror was nowhere to be seen. Hidden maybe, but never on the surface.

Instead, we heard a masterly performance by this pre-eminent advocate of Schumann’s oft-criticised later music. This concerto, written when the composer’s mental health was failing, opens with a beautiful, questing melody which Isserlis invested with a kind of desperate, yearning hope. This charismatic performer engages directly with his audience, willing them to come with him on his journey, eyes shining, head held high. His message? “This is great music. Don’t dismiss it.”

He coaxed along the slow movement’s melancholy melody with an aching tenderness, gracefully accompanied by pizzicato strings, before launching into the frenzy of the finale, eyes blazing, staring out into the auditorium like a man who has seen salvation. His innate sense of line and phrasing gave this piece a logic that is so often missing in lesser performances, raising it to the level it deserves; in short, restoring its reputation.

Conductor Sakari Oramo clearly sees the logic running through Brahms’s Third Symphony. He steered the BBCSO through a no-nonsense performance of this great work, perhaps a little too briskly for some tastes but with laser-like attention to detail. And, of course, it makes a good companion to the Schumann concerto. Brahms wrote this symphony in 1883, looking back to his younger days when he was encouraged by Schumann. The first movement quotes his mentor’s own third symphony and a choral work he wrote after Schumann’s death; 30 years on, he was still mourning the loss of this father figure.

A pastoral nature imbues the piece with softly gurgling woodwind and rustling string melodies, particularly in the third movement, marked Poco Allegretto. Its gorgeous cello melody, later taken up by the horn, was, for me, a little too Allegretto. It felt as though Oramo was itching to get past it to the stormy finale, where he could show off the orchestra at its impressive best.

He had opened the evening with a world premiere: Richard Causton’s Ik zeg: NU (“I say: NOW”), a piece inspired by an elderly Dutch relative’s book on family history, particularly a quote from a 10-year-old, who remarked: “I say ‘now’ now and a moment later it is already history.” Taking this idea, Causton attempts to display in music the fact that we can never grasp the present, it is always slipping through our fingers.

To achieve this he layers two opposing ideas: glacially slow, repetitive patterns played in the strings contrast with fast, chattering bursts of whimsy from trios of woodwind – those elusive moments that are gone for ever. In remarks before the concert, Causton likened these to walking past a school and hearing the delighted, incoherent whoops of joy emanating from the playground. He conjures some interesting combinations of instruments to make his piece – accordion with harp, gongs with vibraphone – and he made his own micro-tonic tubular bells to produce one particulalrly haunting passage. It was one of those engaging, engrossing works you longed to hear again. But then, Causton would say we can never recapture the moment...

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