United Kingdom Britten, Elgar, Rachmaninov: Steven Isserlis (cello), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.4.2018. (CS)
Britten – Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes Op.33a
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances Op.45
It was the penetrating nature of the soulful introspection that was so striking. Looking back through my reviews, I found it hard to believe that four years had passed since I last heard Steven Isserlis perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto – also with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, under the baton of Kirill Karabits on that occasion – for the affecting power of the restrained intensity of that performance in 2014 seemed fresh in my memory as Isserlis let the opening cello chords unfold, darkly, unhurriedly, with dignity. The clarinet’s tender, but not tentative, response was no less self-possessed. It was as if the music was in no rush: we’ve heard its arguments many times, we know what it is going to say, but if we take our time, listen a little harder, more intently, we might hear anew.
Isserlis’s absorption was absolute. He is a player whose commitment to and immersion in the music he performs are often excitingly, dynamically palpable, but on this occasion there seemed to me a remarkable stillness, or poise, about his demeanour even in moments of ecstatic flourish – a focus that was physical, as well as mental and musical. Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard was entirely attuned to his soloist’s intent, and orchestral and solo episodes flowed with a seamless fluency that was effortlessly acquired from the first – the violas’ theme, tinged with quiet nostalgia, rolling irresistibly into the cellos’ path before they in turn passed it to Isserlis, who imbued it with further firmness of voice. The cellist did not have to strain to be heard; Dausgaard made space for the solo voice, and the rubatos breathed with naturalness. The conductor coaxed gentleness and precision from the RPO in equal measure, which made the occasional flashes of power and passion, and the up-swelling release of the tutti climaxes, even more expressive – as if the dark urgency could contain itself no more.
The soloist’s alternation of spread chords and murmuring semiquavers which marks the opening of the Lento/Allegro molto was unmannered, the pauses unlaboured, the line always pushing forward until it scampered lightly away. Isserlis’s leggierissimo scurrying seemed to hover, flying like a bird that would and could not be caught, coming brilliantly into view, singing with warmth and joy, then slipping effortlessly away. The Adagio did not linger overly and at the start, the sweet-timbred integration of the solo line and accompanying strings was easeful, gracefully tempered by slight rhythmic tensions and dialogues. Isserlis’s tone was almost deceptively beautiful: how could such elegance betoken sadness? But, once more, he let the music speak for itself and the resulting heart-rending appassionato flowerings were all the more eloquent for it.
The final movement was, by turns, fiery, noble, defiant; and, again, Dausgaard’s alertness and sensitivity ensured that textures stayed light and airy even as the accompaniment offered resolute ripostes. I began the evening expecting to hear a so-familiar concerto and was invigorated to find that I didn’t know the work so well as I thought after all. So much surprised, but also seemed ‘inevitable’.
The understatement and control that Dausgaard put to such good effect in the Elgar, satisfied me less in the opening work of the programme. The RPO’s technically assured performance of the Sea Interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes seemed to me to lack the visceral intensity that derives from both the pictorial and dramatic qualities of the music. This was a surprisingly ‘polite and proper’ ‘Dawn’, as the violin’s etched the tracery of a gull’s graceful surfing of the morning sky, while the waves burbled below – fairly swift flourishes from the bright harp (Suzy Willison-Kawalec) and mellow clarinets (Katherine Lacy and Sonia Sielaff) – before a richer surge coursed from bassoons, brass and low strings. I was impressed by the tone quality and intonation of the RPO string section when I heard them performed under the baton of Rafael Payare last week, and the piercing cleanness and precision of the opening theme was once again notable. But, as anyone who has stood on the Aldeburgh shingle on a brisk winter morning and gazed at the still ocean, the waves glinting as delicate sun-rays pierce the prevailing grey, knows, there are darker, ominous currents in the deep and the slate-grey cloud can turn to thunderous black in a moment. Dausgaard didn’t quite capture the prevailing menace – the threat that shadows those who live, in all senses, by the sea – though, paradoxically, his decision to perform the movements segue resulted in rather too rapid mood-changes.
‘Sunday Morning’ danced lightly and with clarity, and there was a lovely ‘open’ quality about the sound, but I’d have liked a bit more rhythmic punch from the tolling brass. Ellen Orford sings of the ‘glitter of sunlight’ which ‘bids us rejoice/And lifted our hearts on high’, but here the delight and freedom felt a little restrained. ‘Moonlight’, too, was delicately etched, and beautifully played – with especially mellifluous horn-playing countered by the flutes’ silvery glints of moon-ray (Emer McDonough and Joanna Marsh). But, the deep-breathing of the waves seemed to me to lack the weight, the dangerous down-tug, that I hear in those throbbing syncopations: a heaviness which I liken to Ted Hughes’ image of the harvest moon, which ‘sinks upward/To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon’. The ‘Storm’ duly arrived, with a snap and a snarl, and if the fury was not quite ferocious, the intervening moments of calm eerily unsettling.
If I found Dausgaard’s Suffolk seascapes a little too genteel, then after the interval such ‘refinement’ found a more effective home in a characterful interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, in which the clarity of the textures and phrasing ensured the melodiousness of the score bore no hint of mawkishness, but in which the tempi at times seemed a little hasty. In the first dance, the driving rhythms at times felt feverish, though Kyle Horch’s alto saxophone melody sang with sincerity, delicately accompanied by spare woodwind timbres. And, we again enjoyed the rich fullness of the RPO’s strings when the violins gloriously expanded the gentle folk-tinged theme, though the ‘joins’ between the sections of the movement sometimes seemed to judder a little.
Persuasively, these dances really did dance – as did Dausgaard, who was ever light-footed on the podium. In fact, the emphasis was more on ‘dances’ than ‘symphonic’, and while character-moods were generally well-delineated – interestingly, and echoing Britten’s interludes, the Dances were originally planned as a triptych: ‘Noon’, ‘Twilight’, ‘Midnight’ – there was a less convincing sense of the overall structure. I feel that a more poignant wistfulness, spiced with a dash of haunting macabre (which Duncan Riddell did provide in his eerie solo) should be detectable beneath the elegant surface of the Andante con moto waltz. Here, leisured graciousness gave way to dramatic portentous in the finale, in which simmering energy, restless tension, disturbing diabolism and the triumph of faith were all present in colourful display but did not quite cohere.
Dausgaard is a conductor who genuinely looks as if he is delighting in the music-making – which is by no means always the case – and the smiles, encouragement and guidance that he gave the RPO reaped rewards, if somewhat inconsistently, at the Festival Hall.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available for 30 days.