March 2005

Steven Isserlis with Via Salzburg Chamber Orchestra
March 10 – 11, 2005 • Glen Gould Studio • Toronto
Steven Isserlis, the vibrant English cellist, joined the 15-member Via Salzburg for the third item on the programme, Ernst Bloch’s From Jewish Life, for Cello and String Orchestra. As the two Salzburg cellists, Dolin and Reeves, started the slow drone that introduces the brief “Jewish Song” the voice of Isserlis’ Stradivarius raised an Hebraic melodic complaint from the depths towards the high heavens. The heaven bound strains are taken up by the full ensemble, reading the music, while the gaze of the cellist is directed skywards as if he too were posing a question and listening for an answer.

The second part, entitled “Supplication” is a stormy and dramatic conversation with the inscrutable, supported by René Gosselin’s double bass plucked pizzicato like a beating heart, until the supplication closes in a mood that is both tender and vehement. The third part is called “Prayer” and sounds like the soft, slow calling of a whole people, with the voice of the solo cello taking the part of the cantor addressing The Faraway, and the ensemble responds like a congregation. The music is lyric, full of reflective fantasy and nostalgic outpouring of heartbreak.

The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet, prepared by the composer himself for cello and string orchestra brought the evening a bit closer to earth. Its familiar folk song melody evokes pastoral and bucolic moods as the charming fields and farms of the Russian countryside melt and drift into rolling meadows, hills, and the panoramic spaces of the landscape. The second theme, the composer’s creation, speaks pizzicato with a personal lyric voice, seemingly about the feelings of a single person supported by a more formal musical structure that allows the music to reach for rhapsodic and blissful heights. As he plays, Isserlis’ posture, movements, gestures of arms and face are so expressive, a deaf person could tune into what the music is saying. The piece concludes with a passage that first recalls the anxiety and unearthly beauty of the ”Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and then expires in a high register climax.

To appreciate Mayumi Seiler’s ensemble in its own right, we go back to the start of the evening and C.P.E. Bach’s Symphony No. 2 in B Flat Major, which they performed, standing except for the 2 cellists. The first movement (Allegro di molto), gets off to a swirling, sprightly start, and then subsides into the minor, as bridge to the second movement (Poco Adagio). Here the strings sing in the slow, sweet midrange voice of melancholy, punctuated by bass and cello plucked pulses and dark arco tones, while the violins utter beautiful, lachrymal cries. The Presto third sweeps and tumbles lots of strong colours underlined by dark strokes, alternating quick passages with slow until the triumphant conclusion.

I found one passage of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, which was wonderfully played, to be of special interest. The second movement (Andante amorevole) begins in a slow lyrical manner led by the two sister concertmasters’ violins and the principal viola of Richard O’Neill, who are joined shortly by the rest of the ensemble. The melody is somewhat reminiscent of a theme at the conclusion of the first movement, but here there is a feeling of yearning and imploring as of a lover for a distant beloved. This motif swells, as if in praise of the beloved, punctuated by short, dark strokes of the cellos until it grows into an almost hymn-like mode. The trio of two principal violins and viola again take up this quasi religious romantic feeling until it morphs into a fantasy that seems to recall a pastoral paradise lost which fades into a mist as the movement resolves. What is of interest here is the musical definition of love in the courtly style, where unconsummated feelings of love develop into religious devotion which then becomes capable of transforming the terrestrial landscape into a sublime realm.

For the final piece of this evening, Isserlis abandoned the soloist centre-stage chair and joined the ensemble pared down to an octet to play Octet in C minor, Op 15a, by Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897). Here’s how Isserlis described the piece:” A wonderful array of melodies. Young man’s music. Fun to play, fun to listen to.” It was fun to hear this expression of youthful brooding and storming about that caused Isserlis to flip his great hairdo around in circles as the music worked its way towards calmer waters, more reflective moods. Here floated an abundance of melancholy, but also sensitivity and openness, and passages that sounded almost as if Woldemar were speaking his ideas about the way things in this life can flow in the direction of a wholeness that possesses structure as well as energy. Great stuff. Took its time concluding, at which task the audience assisted by beginning the applause a few bars before the musicians stopped playing. That, too, was fun. First rate fun.

We welcome your comments and feedback
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Report by Stanley Fefferman
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for The Live Music Report

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