Arts & Events

Stephen Isserlis Plays Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto with Philharmonia Baroque

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday February 11, 2018 - 09:10:00 PM

In a concert series dubbed “Harmonic Convergence,” Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, led by Nicholas McGegan, performed music of Mozart, Haydn, and Frederick William Herschel. If the last named is not familiar to you as a composer, perhaps he is more familiar to you as the astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus as well as many comets. In any case, the main attraction in these concerts, which took place throughout the Bay Area from February 7 through 11, was British cellist Stephen Isserlis, who performed in Joseph Haydn’s Concerto for Violincello No. 2 in D Major. I attended the Saturday, February 10 concert at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church.  

Never having heard Stephen Isserlis before in a live performance, I awaited this concert with curious anticipation. Musically, Stephen Isserlis did not disappoint. His tone, on a Stradivarius of 1726, is robust. His technique is impeccable. Stylistically, he is the antithesis of the diffident Yo-Yo Ma. Isserlis is no shrinking violet. He attacks the instrument with vigorous physicality. If anything, Isserlis plays with almost too much physicality. He sways with the music, frequently tossing his shoulder-length mop of grey ringlets, and he tends to complete a phrase with a flamboyant wave of the arms. When doing so, he waves his bow high and wide, so wide in fact, that at moments I thought the members of the violin section were in danger of being struck by Isserlis’s far-flung bow. Fortunately, however, they were seated a safe enough distance to escape even the wide wingspan of Stephen Isserlis’s outstretched arms. 

Musically, Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto offers lovely melodies in all three movements. The work opens with the orchestra playing a lilting melody, which is soon joined by the cello. Towards the end of the first movement, Haydn left space for a cadenza; and Isserlis performed his own cadenza, a brilliant piece of work. The second movement, marked Adagio, opens with a lovely melody by the cello. Throughout this movement Haydn pushes the cello to its technical limits, with multiple stops, lengthy arpeggios, and highly difficult fingering. Stephen Isserlis handled all these difficulties impeccably. The third and final movement offers a delightful Rondo. There is a momentary pause near the end of this movement, after which the work rushes headlong to its joyful conclusion. This Cello Concerto by Haydn was indisputably the highlight of the concert, and it received thunderous applause from the audience. 

Leading off the program was Mozart’s Symphony No. 17 in G Major, K. 129. Mozart composed this symphony in Salzburg at age 16. It opens with a daring move – a coup d’archet, that is, a quadruple stop or chord using all four strings. Then a crescendo follows over what sounds like a drum roll played in the lower strings. A melody is embellished with snappy short-long figures, and these become integral to the rest of the movement. Program notes identify a crescendo rising from pianissimo to forte as something Mozart learned from the fabled Mannheim Orchestra. This puzzled me, for I did not think Mozart visited Mannheim until he stopped there for four months with his mother on his way to Paris when he was 20 years old. But, sure enough, Mozart did indeed visit Mannheim much earlier, in 1763, to be exact, when he was only 7 years old. The second movement, an Andante, offers lovely melodies and a restful air of joy and simplicity. The third and final movement opens with oboes and horns blaring forth in “hunting music.” This offers a rollicking finale in the form of a gigue. 

After intermission, Nicholas McGegan led the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Sir William Herschel’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor. Herschel wrote 24 symphonies, though they are rarely performed. Symphony No. 8 is ingratiatingly brief. Only the third and final movement, an agitated Presto assai, struck me as interesting. It whips back and forth from brooding turmoil to elegantly genteel passages.  

Last on the program was Joseph Haydn ‘s Symphony No. 43 in E-flat Major, “Mercury.” (The nickname was added by an anonymous 19th century individual.) This symphony opens with a slow introduction, almost sounding like a minuet. Then it picks up speed, becoming a true Allegro. Later, Haydn plays with the audience by restating the opening theme three times in three different keys, “as if fishing for a keyhole in the dark,” reads the Program Notes. The second movement, marked Adagio, I find tediously repetitive, as it obsesses endlessly over a short-short-long motive. Enough already! The third movement is a minuet suggestive of the German Ländler. As dance music goes, this is folksy in the extreme. The fourth and final movement opens quietly, then bursts forth in a brisk Allegro. Haydn pauses momentarily towards the end, then rushes headlong to a brilliant conclusion. 

Performing on period instruments, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra gave a solid account of each piece of music presented in this concert. If the term “Harmonic Convergence” seemed contrived (a sop, I suppose, to William Herschel), oh well, I suppose that’s simply a marketing ploy. One needn’t take such hooks seriously.