Steven Isserlis inspires with a wonderful Elgar Concerto in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Miller, Elgar, Bruckner: Steven Isserlis (cello), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 24.11.2023. (GN)

Otto Tausk conducts cellist Steven Isserlis and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra © VSO

Cassandra MillerLa Donna
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Bruckner – Symphony No.7 in E major, WAB 107

Esteemed British cellist Steven Isserlis last appeared in Vancouver in 2015, when he gave penetrating accounts of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas with fortepianist Robert Levin. The current visit featured the Elgar Cello Concerto, and Isserlis’s performance was stunning: vital and animated, yet full of tender repose, possibly finding a greater range of feelings than previously. The Elgar might have fit well with the radiant tenderness and grandeur of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, but Maestro Tausk failed to be wooed by this prospect. He settled for a streamlined approach to the symphony, mainly showcasing the discipline of the orchestra and the power of the brass in climaxes. The opening experimental piece, La Donna (2021) by local composer Cassandra Miller (who now lives in London), was a more interesting adventure.

Isserlis has performed the Elgar concerto consistently over the past forty years, recording it in 1988 for Virgin and 2016 for Hyperion. The earlier one was an intimate, tender performance of the work – which remains special – but it is possibly responsible for his reputation as putting forth an ‘old man’s’ view of it. This was not substantiated here. The cellist penetrates the work’s fragility, regret and sense of weariness with great feeling, but he integrates this with more assertive and visceral responses to the composer’s perceived circumstance, making the emotional range wider and more complex. A key ingredient is Isserlis’s keen awareness of the architecture and line of the piece, which allows both types of response to be united in a concentrated way. The result is much more than a recollection in tranquility.

There was no shortage of poignant playing in the noble opening movement, but one immediately noticed that Isserlis’s phrasing was never uniform – even the most inward lyrical line was moving somewhere, often punctuated by a little bulge in phrase that seemed to be reaching for something. For all the elegant plasticity of phrase, there was also a sense of urgency in certain passages, articulated with cutting thrust. Something quite unsettled was identified here. This was amplified more fully in the following Scherzo, where one observed how skittish it was, the cello’s descending runs delivered with a giddy, almost manic frenzy. As always, Isserlis was completely at home in the Adagio, ravishing in his varied shadings and whispers and settling perfectly into its stillness. The finale returned to the fray, Isserlis somber and inward at one moment yet hurtling forth the next, exhibiting just the right type of determination and resolve to finish the emotional journey.

This was a wonderfully complete performance of the Elgar and ranks with the very best (which includes Jacqueline du Pré’s classic account). Otto Tausk gave a conscientious account of the orchestral part, though he might have been too loud in portions of the finale, and some of his dramatic accents seemed slightly too showy for the composer.

Cassandra Miller’s La Donna was inspired by the informal yet florid, Trallalero-style singing that was heard regularly near the docks of Genoa. It derives from a transcription of ‘La partenza da Parigi’ as recorded by Alan Lomax in 1954, but tries to dissect and magnify its contents. The opening of the work is loud and wild, the brass taking on the singing role, full of swoops and slides, with perhaps the same sense of occasion and urgency one finds at the beginning of Monteverdi’s Vespers. The strings accompany, often adding a sense of wonder to the proceedings, but are ultimately subject to the same slides and distortions as the brass. The first part of the work carries this on using very few tonal centres, but it maintains synergy and an interesting complexity in brass lines: whooping horns even get their due. The complexity and varied dynamics derive from the possibility that there are many groups of (uncoordinated) singers in proximity, so one might be just ending a piece while another is starting it, or one group may be soft while the other is loud, and so on. Sometimes only one voice remains singing.

I enjoyed this part of the experiment, but what followed seemed more difficult to bring off, since it is so quiet and extended. A now-loaded boat has departed (possibly with a loved one aboard) and is watched from the dock as it slowly disappears into the horizon. After the earlier carnival of sound, there is now a feeling of removal, perhaps melancholy, embodied in a repeated three-note sequence that gets softer and softer. The music must be suspended almost in a timeless mist, but unless one has an unremitting commitment to pieces as varied as ‘Common Tones in Simple Time’ by John Adams or the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, it can outstay its welcome. I think it did here: eight minutes is a long time to hear the same note sequence again and again, even if the tonal centers from which the work began were carried over. Perhaps a fleeting allusion to the cacophony of the opening would have yielded more variety. Nonetheless, Miller’s writing is communicative and can touch real emotions beyond the techniques she uses.

Tausk first embarked on the Bruckner symphonies with the VSO in 2019, performing the composer’s popular No.4, ‘Romantic’. The result was a rather uncomfortable absorption of the composer’s idiom, not particularly well played, and it tended to seek power over poetry. As I wrote then, ‘The conductor aimed to exhibit the power in the work without quite realizing that the success of its majestic brass climaxes depends on how skillfully one achieves an organic flow and suspends its quieter moments of space and contemplation. Tausk always wanted to tighten the lyrical episodes, not sit with their beauty, and the consequence was that his phrases were too short and flat to allow a truly Brucknerian romantic line. The result was sort of a generic romanticism interspersed by climaxes’.

The major virtue of the current performance of the Seventh Symphony is that it was better played. The conductor must be complimented on what he has done with the orchestra since the pandemic. However, the above comments still apply, and perhaps with greater force since the Seventh is a more far-reaching symphony. The result here seemed to be a glamourized, virtuoso Bruckner No.7, failing to mine its lyrical breadth and radiant beauty, or to show empathy with the composer’s expressive makeup.

The opening movement proceeded at a speed faster than I have ever heard, strangely taking the work back to the structural tightness that one finds in his First Symphony and ‘Die Nulle’. The result was like getting glimpses of all the work’s enticing hills, valleys and enchanting peasant villages from an adjoining expressway. Furthermore, everything was set in the light of day: the poignant, upward-reaching cello theme which starts the journey off was so loud that it completely swamped the violin tremolo that must mesh with it. The great Adagio was equally purposive, starting at strong volumes with the richest, most luxuriant string textures, building to its supreme climax with the cymbal crash (the Nowak edition was used). Indeed, while the movement pays homage to Wagner’s death and employs Wagner tubas, here it sounded like it was actually written by Wagner, not the humbler Bruckner.

The rollicking Scherzo, possibly depicting a charming, open-air peasant dance, was taken at a headlong pace, with virtuoso zeal and overdramatized timpani driving it to an almost macabre finish. The finale aimed at cinematics too, turning the beguiling whim and caprice of its central theme into a string ‘serenade’ set between the bold brass punctuations. For a Dutch conductor, I am surprised that so little of the Concertgebouw tradition, and the interpretations of Bernard Haitink and Eduard van Beinum, have rubbed off on Tausk.

Geoffrey Newman

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