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Mendelssohn and Schumann: Steven Isserlis (cello). Orchestre des Champs-Élysées; Philippe Herreweghe (conductor) Barbican Hall London 24.1.2009 (MMB)

Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor

Tonight’s concert was part of the excellent 2008-2009 Great Performers series, organised by the Barbican every year; this time featuring the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, led by their founder, the distinguished Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe, with renowned British cellist Steven Isserlis.

The programme opened with Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, one of his most enduringly popular works in Britain. The composer first sketched his ideas for this piece during a trip he made to England and Scotland, as a young man of twenty. He actually wrote the main theme, in B minor, the day before setting out on a boat journey, to visit the sea caves on the island of Staffa, part of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. Mendelssohn completed the first version in Rome, in 1830, as a present to his father, and called it Overture to a Lonely Isle. He then revised the full piece in 1832 as Die Hebriden (The Hebrides), dedicated to pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870). This was the version that the composer conducted himself, at the premiere of the piece in May 1832 for the London Philharmonic Society. Immediately after its first performance, Mendelssohn revised the work once again and called this final version The Hebrides Overture, however it was published in 1835 as Fingal’s Cave. It is a relatively short piece, beautifully liquid, with a dark main theme in B minor, which reinvents itself through repetition before the second theme in D major begins. This is a wonderful melody played by the cellos and bassoons, possibly one of the greatest ever written by Mendelssohn, according to some of the composer’s enthusiasts. The piece finishes softly on pizzicato strings and timpani, underlined by a flute. Herreweghe led the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées in a vivid, stimulating, performance of the piece, making it easy to imagine the cliffs, the waves and the wind. His decision of having the orchestra in an antiphonal placement, with the cellos and violas in the middle, flanked by the first and second violins, and with the double basses in a row at the back, definitely contributed to the “wave” effect of the piece. 

Fingal’s Cave was followed by a very different work: Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. This concerto, together with Dvořak’s, is one of my favourite pieces for the instrument, though Schumann’s, unlike Dvořak’s, has often been dismissed as poorly written. On the one hand, this is possibly due to the work’s lack of flashy virtuosity, which does not mean it is easy but that the piece is subtle, revealing a deep understanding of the instrument. The naturally sad sound of the cello is the true star and not the soloist. On the other hand, the orchestral part is deceptively thin, in the sense that it is unobtrusive and more transparent than other concert works by the composer, his Piano Concerto for example, also in A minor. For this performance of Schumann’s intensely lyrical piece, Herreweghe and the orchestra were joined by cellist, and children’s author, Steven Isserlis, with his wonderful Feuermann Stradivarius cello of 1730, kindly loaned by The Nippon Music Foundation of Japan. Isserlis has often championed Schumann’s Cello Concerto and the composer is, according to Isserlis, one of his passions. Isserlis is an inspired musician and his commitment to the instrument and the music were obvious throughout the performance. He beautifully underlined Schumann’s lyricism, extracting a luminous sound from the instrument and providing some truly moving moments, particularly during the second Langsam (slow)movement; a wonderful melody, expressed with tenderness and great delicacy. He plays the cello with an elegant stroke of the bow, approaching the instrument in a rather soft, sensitive and caring manner. In fact, I felt this was occasionally a little too much, as during a few of the slightly more powerful passages for the orchestra, Isserlis appeared almost as if he were miming; one could watch him play but could not hear him. This fact, together with his continuous adjustments to the cello’s endpin, was a bit distracting. I found myself wondering if he thought that the precious Stradivarius would simply disintegrate at his feet, should he attempt to play it in a more assertive manner. Nevertheless, his interpretation of Schumann’s piece was overall very satisfying, with great musical integrity and beauty, doing full justice to the composer and performed without breaks between movements, as Schumann intended.

The Orchestre des Champs-Élysées accompanied Isserlis’s interpretation very effectively, suitably keeping in the background, cushioning the soloist instead of overwhelming him. This was expertly and discreetly achieved by Herreweghe who I often find too remote in his interaction with orchestra and solo musicians. However, in this instance, I must say that his distant, sober conducting style excellently served Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Isserlis’s performance. 

After the interval, Herreweghe and the orchestra returned for Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, therefore returning to the composer’s trip to Scotland. Mendelssohn’s Symphony is, like Schumann’s Cello Concerto, in the key of A minor and, again like Schumann’s piece, its four movements are intended to be played without a break. It was actually the last symphony out of a total of five that Mendelssohn composed; the number three is related to the publishing order. The Scottish Symphony is a dark piece, deeply contrasting with his Italian (the number 4 in A major from 1833). The gloomy aspects of the work were possibly influenced not only by the usually poor weather of Scotland but also by Mendelssohn’s visit to the ruined palace of Mary, Queen of Scots. As is generally known, he was moved by it and he wrote to his family that he had found there the beginning of his Scottish Symphony. He wrote sixteen bars of it but then moved to other projects, only returning to the symphony twelve years later, finally completing it in January 1842. It was performed in England in the same year and, upon its success, Mendelssohn was permitted to dedicate it to Queen Victoria. 

With the “Scottish”, the musicians of the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and their conductor really came into their own. Again, Herreweghe’s antiphonal placement of the orchestra effectively made the work shine. His conducting style changed a little during this piece; he became more energetic, his enthusiasm for the work was genuine and contagious and the orchestra followed his lead and a special rapport was created. I must say that the Scottish Symphony is a work that I like but not one that I care to listen to very often. Its beauty is unquestionable but its bleakness tends to depress me, leaving me fretting about the gray, damp weather of the British Isles and longing for the hot, luminous summer days of some Southern European country. Surprisingly and for the first time, I felt differently towards this Symphony and this is entirely due to Herreweghe’s, and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées’s credit. Although they made short breaks between the first and second movements and then between the second and third, they gave it a positive energy and an optimistic edge that to me was unprecedented. The darkness was still present but there was a light at the end of the tunnel, a triumph over adversity, which I believe was an interpretation very close to the composer’s intentions. I still prefer the Italian Symphony, with its lively, radiant, sunny tunes, but this interpretation of the “Scottish” by Philippe Herreweghe and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées was truly wonderful and arguably, one of the best I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. The audience at the Barbican responded in a very positive way, giving orchestra and conductor long, enthusiastic and well deserved applause, which made Mr Herreweghe return to the stage and give a brief, but pleasant and welcome encore.

Margarida Mota-Bull

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