Isserlis Persuasive in Prokofiev Concerto; Järvi delights with the ‘Rhenish’

16/12/2016

Prokofiev, Schumann: Steven Isserlis (cello), Tonhalle Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich, 15.12.2016. (JR)

copyright_jean_baptiste_millot

Steven Isserlis (c) Jean Baptiste Millot

Prokofiev – Cello concerto
Schumann – Symphony No.3, ‘Rhenish’

Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto is no household favourite by any stretch of the imagination. When composed, in 1938, it was considered “soul-less”. In Isserlis’s expert hands the concerto becomes soulful. The première was reportedly a fiasco, but there was much criticism (by Hans Richter, for one) of the conductor and soloist. It took until 1947 to be rediscovered, by Rostropovich, who then urged Prokofiev to re-write it as a Sinfonia Concertante, actually hoping – Isserlis suspects – for a brand new work. The revision (Op.125), whilst eclipsing its predecessor, has also found no favour.

Isserlis, one of the world’s leading cellists for a generation, has been championing the original work (Op.58) and recorded it last year, to considerable acclaim, with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Järvi.

The work does not make for particularly easy listening: the last movement consisting of interludes and a series of variations (seemingly on the first three notes of the chimes of Big Ben) is a mite over-long. It’s rugged but never as bleak as Shostakovich could have made it; the solo part is difficult (no hurdle for Isserlis, of course) and rather unrewarding. The work does have some beautiful passages and the jaunty orchestral accompaniment reminds one of the sound world of Romeo and Juliet, but without the tunes.

Isserlis, with Järvi’s assistance, made a persuasive case for the “original” version. Few are persuaded the concerto is actually a masterpiece, but it’s certainly well worth hearing. Watching Isserlis is an added bonus: with his mop of curly grey hair, he casts his eyes to the heavens when not playing and visibly adores the work. In the first movement, Isserlis conjures up some surprising sounds and builds up great tension. There are some almost witty passages, as one might expect from Prokofiev, and here Isserlis conveys a sense of fun. However, the feeling of a malevolent presence hardly ever leaves the work. After a fast and furious Coda, Isserlis rewarded us with some playful Kabalevsky and cheeky grimaces.

Schumann’s Third Symphony, the ‘Rhenish’, is named after the River Rhine which flows majestically through the cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf. I lived in Düsseldorf for a few years in the late Sixties and themes from Schumann’s symphony were used on local television to introduce and sign off a regional news programme, Hier und heute’, here and today. All the locals knew the melody even if few recognised its provenance. Schumann was inspired to write the symphony after a happy trip, with his wife Clara, to the Rhineland, Schumann later becoming Municipal Music Director in Düsseldorf.

The first movement opens with a surging heroic theme and the whole movement has an ever-present flow, like the Rhine itself. The second movement is a Scherzo, a rustic Ländler evoking the days when the Rhineland was not yet heavily industrialised; the third movement brings calm repose before a fourth movement in which Järvi skilfully built up and overlaid the chorale-like themes. Järvi has recorded the work, a few years ago, with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen, and he uncovers phrases which in ordinary performances of the work are usually unheard. The final movement brought a smile to everyone’s face and the joyous finish ensured warm applause. The orchestra clearly warmed to Järvi, he would be a contender as Bringuier’s successor; could he combine the Tonhalle with the NHK Symphony of which he became the Chief Conductor last year, with an initial contract of three years?

John Rhodes

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