Saturday, February 10, 2018

Isserlis’ Delightful Return to Philharmonia Baroque

Last night the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), conducted by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan, returned to Herbst Theatre for the February concert of its 2017–18 season. The soloist for the evening was cellist Steven Isserlis, a familiar face both in San Francisco and in PBO company. He served as soloist in a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken VIIb/2 cello concerto in D major. Since Gautier Capuçon had visited Davies Symphony Hall to perform the Hoboken VIIb/1 cello concerto in C major with the Royal Philharmonia Orchestra (RPO) at the end of last month, last night provided an excellent compare-and-contrast opportunity, particularly since RPO conductor Thierry Fischer reduced the size of the string section for the RPO performance.

The impact of contrast begins with the scores themselves. The C major concerto abounds with vigorous energy, while the D major is more inclined to graciousness. Haydn’s capacity for wit is more overt in C major, compared with the quieter subtleties that shade the humor of the D major. Nevertheless, both concertos are equal in the opportunities they provide for virtuoso display; and, while Isserlis could be just as overt in his physical actions as Capuçon had been, he knew how to allow Haydn’s subtleties just the right platform on which to work their magic.

In many respects Isserlis was perfectly matched with McGegan when it comes to rhetorical disposition. Both of them have no trouble with overt expression of the sheer joy of making music, a joy that tends to pervade the entire PBO ensemble. As a result Isserlis fit smoothly into the spirit of the evening that McGegan had already established with his energetic involvement in an early symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 129 in G major.

As concerto soloists of eighteenth-century music often do, Isserlis involved himself in the ensemble introduction of the first movement before launching into his solo work, thus establishing a first-among-equals approach to the concerto concept. Furthermore, he approached the execution of his own cadenzas as an opportunity to “share with the group,” rather than just impressing the audience. (In the first movement one got the impression that Isserlis had so many ideas for cadenza work that he seemed to hesitate while deciding how to begin. Nevertheless, throughout the entire concerto he was consistent in making sure that a cadenza never overstayed its welcome.)

Steven Isserlis after last night's concerto performance (photograph by Michael Strickland)

Ironically, Isserlis’ encore selection was the same as Capuçon’s, Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the Catalan Christmas song and lullaby “El cant dels ocells” (the song of the birds). However, while Capuçon played Casals’ score, which included accompaniment by low strings, Isserlis played a version for solo cello prepared by Sally Beamish. In other words he played an arrangement of an arrangement. Casals’ approach to arrangement primarily involved having the accompanying strings play “fluttering” tremolo passages, while Beamish’s approach was particularly effective in having a single instrument account for both foreground and background.

The “curiosity selection” in last night’s program was one of the 24 symphonies composed by William Herschel, the eighth in C minor. Herschel began as a musician, following the footsteps of his father (so to speak) by playing in the Military Band of Hanover before moving the Great Britain. He continued his musical activities there but built his own telescope, presumably for recreational purposes. His time spent on watching the night sky paid off with the discovery of a new planet, which he named Georgium Sidus in honor of his King. (The planet would be renamed Uranus in 1850.) Hershel was rewarded with an annual stipend to give up music and focus his attention on astronomy.

A replica of the telescope Herschel used for his planetary discovery (photograph by Mike Young, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The eighth symphony has all of the dark connotations of is C minor key. However, like much of the music from the eighteenth century that has become all but forgotten, the movements are short; and the approach to thematic material tends to be rudimentary. While the symphony certainly had “novelty value,” it also tended to distract from the concluding selection, Haydn’s Hoboken I/43 symphony in E-flat major. This was a symphony rich in detail as well as wit. Unfortunately, it came at the end of a long evening for which Herschel’s contribution was primarily prolongation. Hoboken I/43 is a symphony whose merits are best appreciated by a fresh mind, rather than one already filled to the brim with the rich experiences of last night’s programming.

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