Bread, filling, bread. Overture, concerto, symphony. Despite flirtations with open sandwiches, club sandwiches and two-symphony programmes, it seems that in both cases most people stick to tradition. But not the Philharmonia and András Schiff: last night’s programme began with Mendelssohn’s brooding Hebrides Overture, followed by Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor came in the second half, performed by British super-cellist Steven Isserlis. To continue in a culinary vein, this programme reversal is somewhat reminiscent of Heston Blumenthal’s infamous snail porridge: there’s no real reason for it not to happen, but the original version is inexplicably more popular.

© Tom Miller
© Tom Miller

Felix Mendelssohn had a romantic image of Scotland. Brought up on Romantic literature, particularly Sir Walter Scott, the young German toured Scotland aged twenty. Fortunately for concert-goers and the Scottish tourist board alike, Mendelssohn’s memories of this trip were of kilted Highlanders, misty hills and the cathedral-like caves of Staffa, rather than interminable rain, cold and midges. How different the Hebrides Overture might have been! The piece is a musical description of the Hebrides, from the stormy seas of the opening to the grandeur that represents Staffa’s enormous basalt caves. Schiff’s generous gestures and well-considered tempi moulded gigantic shapes into the tempestuous music, and the pianissimo playing of the strings and woodwind soloists created a magically misty atmosphere.

And so to the oddly placed symphony. The E Minor Symphony is Brahms’ fourth and last, and the one which he feared would not become popular with audiences. This was due to his writing: the shoulder blades of the most complicated compositional technique poke through the musical skin, forcing the listener to take heed of pitch and counterpoint. Possibly in an attempt to hide these bare bones, Schiff took both the first and second movements faster than is often heard. Although this did create convincing musical phrases, the music was a little jumbled at times and the weight of Brahms’ glorious harmony was lost. The humorous third movement, a light-hearted scherzo, was also fast but very successful: the movement ran along with uncontrollable glee, huge dynamic contrasts and pointed accents helping to create the image of a young Brahms on a night out with friends. The final movement, a theme and thirty variations based on a Bach cantata, saw a return of the heavier Brahms sound: this seemed unfortunate after the lively third movement which showed off the Philharmonia at their virtuosic best.

Like Brahms’ symphony, Dvořák wrote his cello concerto in B minor towards the end of his life. It was prompted by the death of his sister-in-law Josefina, with whom he had been in love and who had rejected him. Having been spurned, the composer promptly married Josefina’s sister in a twist worthy of any soap opera. The concerto opens with an expansive orchestral section, played passionately by the Philharmonia with an expressive horn solo from Guest Principal Jose Vincente Castelló. Although his cello was occasionally unable to compete with the orchestra, Isserlis performed with consummate ease, communicating almost imperceptibly with Schiff. Soloist and conductor obviously agreed entirely on the dignified tone they set; very little discussion was needed.

It was the lyrical second movement in which Isserlis really shone. Based on a theme from Josefina’s favourite of the composer’s songs, it can often be slightly meandering. In Isserlis’s hands, however, it became an improvised song, a reflection on life and death. Dialogue between the cellist and the orchestra served to suggest the universal nature of grief, despite the specifics of the piece’s composition. Isserlis’s cadenza captured the heartbreak of the piece in a dignified manner, never stooping to theatrical shows of grief. Despite its stamping rhythms of Czech dances, the third movement was also immensely dignified. This was a performance which benefitted from the wisdom of age; Isserlis played passionately, but in a refined manner which perfectly expressed Dvořák’s wry yet fond smile as he looked back over the mad passions of youth. Isserlis was helped in this by Schiff’s excellent tempo, which neither dragged with exaggerated passion nor rushed with the impetuousness of youth. The concerto’s position in the programme allowed the final word of the evening to be with Isserlis: we were sent home with his haunting encore, Casal’s arrangement of a Catalan folksong, ringing in our ears and a confusion over the programme order lingering in our minds.