One of the most appealing features of concert streaming is the ability to almost immediately replay a musical performance to check whether it’s as good as you think it is. In the case of Steven Isserlis’ performance of Schumann's Cello Concerto, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” What a tremendous combination of musicians working together to produce great music: the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, conducted by the brilliant Chloé van Soeterstède, and “starring” (no other word will do) Steven Isserlis as soloist. The work was at the heart of a live streamed event now available "on demand" on YouTube.

Steven Isserlis © BBC
Steven Isserlis
© BBC

This late work by Robert Schumann, less than a half hour in length, embraces the entire range of human feeling that can be expressed in music, from tenderness, love and lyricism to sorrow, anguish and unimaginable joy. As the music poured from Schumann’s pen while his life spun inexorably toward madness and death, so it radiated from Isserlis’s bow, penetrating and revealing the composer’s deepest feelings that resonate so intimately with our own. In a pre-concert conversation, the cellist said he aspires only to be a channel, to let Schumann tell the story. And what a story it is.

The program also included three jollier works in exquisite readings directed by van Soeterstède: Elfreda Andrée’s Concert Overture in D major, an assertive movement filled with engaging melodies and imaginative dynamics; Reckless by Sally Beamish, a waggish three-minute musical frolic through the physically distanced orchestra; and Mozart’s three-movement Symphony no. 34 in C major. All received individualized attention from the alert conductor and admirable elocution by the ensemble’s musicians. With a smaller number of instrumentalists due to Covid restrictions, van Soeterstède maintained a fine balance in which the woodwinds and brass players could shine without eclipsing the more tender voices of the strings. 

The conductor’s gifts of balance, attention, and acute musical sensibility were essential to the success of the Schumann, as important as Isserlis' ability to merge technical mastery with interpretive insight. The composer imagined this concerto as an integrated unity with no break between movements. The result is a cohesive whole, yet charged with Romantic energy, a nervous energy that infected this soloist’s fingering as his left hand scampered, like a creature with a mind of its own, up and down the instrument’s neck. Lightly grasping the bow, his right hand responded with spiccato – bouncing on the strings – or a lyrical legato, and both hands flying into the air at the conclusion of a thrilling phrase.

Chloé van Soeterstède © BBC
Chloé van Soeterstède
© BBC

It is a joy to watch this artist play, his eyes focusing on some distant object or idea. He does not ornament his performance with gratuitous facial expressions, yet great absorption and intense feeling lead to the occasional grimace or smile. A musician’s instrument includes his or her own body, which adds its own electricity to a performance. It is not a coincidence that the cello, of all instruments, is balanced on the human heart, as though linked to a charging station, feeding on the hidden soul that not even science can detect.

Perhaps because it has so much in common with the lower vocal ranges, the cello’s sound can seem to reflect human traits. It can be didactic and imperious or a fluttering mass of palpitations. Often, it is just loud. In this performance, Isserlis brought us a cello sensitive to shifts in mood, full of subtle yearning and breathtaking intensity, even urgency, but always honoring Schumann’s direction and a vision almost classical in scope.

Along with van Soeterstède’s discerning leadership and the collective talent of the BBC Scottish, Isserlis brought the concerto to a spine-tingling conclusion and a memorable offering of one of the repertoire’s most affecting works for cello and orchestra.

 

This performance was reviewed from the BBC Scottish SO's YouTube live stream

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