Steven Isserlis, Thomas Dausgaard / RPO
Britten / Elgar / Rachmaninoff
London, Royal Festival Hall, 2018-04-04
2018-04-18 — Original posting
As we were in London for a few days, my daughter and I reviewed the concert schedules and realized that there would be a concert at Royal Festival Hall (see my “Concert Venues” page for information) that we deemed interesting. So, the day before the event, we booked two seats (front stalls, row “M”, left side).
This was my third visit to that concert hall, after
- a concert back in 1979. If I remember correctly, this was with the London Bach Choir singing Bach’s St.John Passion, most likely under Sir David Willcocks (1919 – 2015), with Sir Peter Pears (1910 – 1986) as evangelist. I don’t recall much of this concert, except that HRH Prince Charles was present, which led to an introductory performance of the National Anthem (an interesting experience for someone from Switzerland!)
- a concert where Oxana Shevchenko played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2, on 2017-04-10
As it turned out, the venue was fairly well-sold. Given the short notice, I could not prepare for the concert the way I usually do, e.g., by listening to recordings of all pieces played, ideally even comparing different recordings. I merely managed to download the scores of the Elgar concerto and of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances onto my iPad. Scores for works by Benjamin Britten are not available for download at this time (and for many years to come), due to copyright protection. So, this report will be somewhat different from my usual concert reviews: I will focus on describing my experience rather than trying to rate the performance.
This was an orchestral concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing under the direction of Thomas Dausgaard. Neither of these I have ever heard in concert, however, they are of course not unknown entities to me.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (see also Wikipedia) has appeared on sidelines in CD reviews. Nonwithstanding, I know that this is one of London’s most prominent orchestras. The orchestra, now residing at London’s Cadogan Hall, with the Royal Festival Hall as “second home”. It goes back to 1946—its founder was Sir Thomas Beecham (1879 – 1961). Currently, Charles Dutoit (*1936) is Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, and Pinchas Zukerman (*1948) is the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor.
The Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard (*1963, see also Wikipedia), on the other hand, has a substantial presence in my music collection, with all of Beethoven’s orchestral works (including all symphonies and concertos), as well as Schumann’s symphonies. All of these feature Thomas Dausgaard as conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in Örebro. Dausgaard also is Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”, op.33a
Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) began writing his Opera “Peter Grimes” in 1941, while he was in California. The opera premiered in 1945, in London. The inspiration for the opera was Britten’s encounter with a narrative poem “Peter Grimes” from the book “The Borough” by George Crabbe (1754 – 1832). The narration in the poem plays in Aldeburgh, a village on England’s east coast, also Britten’s home town. The opera features several interludes, which Britten published separately, as Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”, op.33a. In this concert, the sequence of the interludes did not follow the original order (hence the action) in the opera:
- Dawn, lento e tranquillo (after the Prologue, at the beginning of Act I) —
- Sunday Morning, Allegro con spirito (at the beginning of Act II) —
- Moonlight, Andante comodo e rubato (at the beginning of Act III) —
- Storm, Presto con fuoco – Largamente – Tempo I – Molto animato – Energico (from Act I)
For the most part, it’s probably the composer who deserves recognition for this very pictorial, “realistic” representation of an early morning at sea. But of course, also Thomas Dausgaard contributed to bringing this soundscape to life. I pictured sea birds flying, watching out for fish, the emerging light of the rising sun, the soft waves, nature at sea gently waking up. Dausgaard’s conducting was more expressive, if not pictorial, rather than schematically defining the beat. There is a climax like a big(ger) wave, thereafter, the music ebbs away again, ending in a serene, calm atmosphere — and the next interlude follows without interruption, so seamlessly that the transition is hardly noticeable.
II. Sunday Morning
Now that the sun is up, growing powerful, the scene revives, culminates in a fairly dramatic, but joyful, grandiose climax. The music builds up in waves, with a lively, complex mix of parallel rhythms. The program notes talk about “everybody going to church”—to me it was primarily the beauty of a landscape at sea, with children playing on Sunday morning. And yes, there are the church bells calling, and the seascape ends up deserted…
There is the silvery moonlight, maybe the occasional night-bird calling, with melancholic melody fragments. Music that occasionally reminded me of Arvo Pärt’s Tintinnabuli style? It’s a peaceful scenery—if there wasn’t this menacing undertone: obviously not in nature, but an indication for the turmoil, the fighting in the protagonist’s mind, and so…
A vehement storm breaks out, with lightnings, loud thunder and a terribly, dangerously rough sea. Even more, it seems to depict the protagonist’s fighting with his destiny. This leads to a dissonant climax, a wild, multi-layered, complex soundscape. Intermediately, the music seems to calm down—though, this is definitely not the “Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm” (Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm) from Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 (F major, op.68): the destiny catches up with the protagonist, the vehement, enthralling ending is short, even abrupt.
A fascinating composition that deserves more presence on European concert stages!
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard performed very well in this music: a big formation of musicians, focused, concentrated and engaged, with a wide dynamic span. I wouldn’t say they “filled the hall” (see below for more on that), but both sound quality / intonation and volume were very good, as far as I could tell.
Sir Edward William Elgar (1857 – 1934) wrote his Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85 in summer 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War—his last major work. The composition had a bad premiere (due to lack of rehearsal time, apparently). It was only in the 1960s that the concerto gained wide-spread popularity, when Jacqueline du Pré, OBE (1945 – 1987) “threw her life into this concerto” and recorded it. It has since become a core piece of the cello repertoire. The movements of the concerto are
- Adagio – Moderato —
- Lento – Allegro molto
- Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio
Shamefully, I have not listened to this concerto very often so far. I do have one recording on CD, but I wanted to wait for suitable alternatives before dealing with it in more detail. This is only a part of the excuse for the sketchy notes below…
The Soloist — Steven Isserlis
Our seats in row 13 were not all that shabby. Yet, the acoustics in this venue seemed really bad. We had a hard time really appreciating the performance of both the soloist and the orchestra:
I. Adagio –
Expectedly, Isserlis started the introduction with verve and emphasis, with long bow strokes, “quasi-legato“. His playing then instantly turned lyrical. After the second sforzato, there was a strong diminuendo—and his tone practically vanished. I first thought that my ears were failing, but my daughter confirmed that one could barely hear him in pp and softer segments, especially in the low register. And there is virtually no accompaniment in this introduction!
That wasn’t just the soloist. Also the cellos in the orchestra sounded really faint. They apparently did not profit from any support by the acoustics at all. There were instances when we could see the cellists move their bows on the strings—but what we heard wasn’t much beyond imagination. Strangely, I hadn’t noticed this problem in the concert last April—but that had been a youth orchestra accompanying a piano. The orchestra probably was not playing very subtly back then. Also, last year, I was sitting on the same side as the cellos in the orchestra.
To return to Steven Isserlis: did the soloist have problems with the acoustics himself? I just wondered whether the “expressive intonation”with (deliberately?) narrow lead intervals (half-tones) was intentional, or rather a consequence of the acoustics?
Of course, Steven Isserlis’ playing—as much as we could hear—was as intense and lyrical as expected: mostly introverted in this movement, but also emotional, with intense vibrato. The soloist seemed inconspicuous—acoustically, but this sure was not his fault. Even in the bigger gestures, his tone seemed restrained (quite in contrast to the strong brass segments in the orchestra!). And, of course, Isserlis kept close contact with Dausgaard and the orchestra. He was not only watching the musicians in the orchestra, but often shook his head with the rhythm, as he was listening. Then again, he seemed to listen to faint music in the distance, far away…
II. Lento – Allegro molto
After the initial Lento introduction with the arpeggiated pizzicatos on the cello, there is a segment with extreme rubato. It’s all written down in the score: the music is essentially alternating between Lento and Allegro molto, culminating in a short cadenza. Then only, the movement (mostly) settles on Allegro molto, with long stretches of semiquaver tremolo in the solo, annotated leggierissimo. As agitated and virtuosic as the tremolo might have been, in Steven Isserlis’ hands (and these acoustics) it never sounded extroverted, but very much “talking”, expressive: Steven Isserlis seemed to tell stories!
If only the solo had enjoyed a better acoustic presence! We just heard enough to appreciate Steven Isserlis’ intense singing tone, his lyrical, elegiac playing with intense (but not overly obtrusive) vibrato. The solo felt so emotional, mellow, dreamy, serene… wonderful music!
IV. Allegro – Moderato – Allegro, ma non troppo – Poco più lento – Adagio
The last movement begins with a short Allegro, followed by a recitative-like intermezzo. Then only, the central Allegro, ma non troppo sets in. The solo part remained predominantly lyrical, actually alternating between expressive, lyrical, even pensive segments and short, extroverted and virtuosic gestures. The orchestral interjections were setting strong accents / counterpoints—a discussion / interaction between two vastly different characters. Thereby, the cello alone appeared to exhibit vastly different aspects, the rich set of emotions of a complex, multi-faceted personality.
For the best I can tell, Steven Isserlis’ playing was really excellent (as expected). I think he did his best to present Elgar’s intent, Elgar’s music, rather than focusing on expressing his personal view on this music. And Thomas Dausgaard (also expectedly) was an excellent partner: throughout the concerto, I didn’t notice a single instance where solo and accompaniment were not in agreement in rhythm and tempo. For the dynamics: well, here, the distortions through the acoustics prevailed, so I rather refrain from commenting.
Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, op.45
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) wrote his three Symphonic Dances, op.45, in 1940. It’s an orchestral suite—his last composition. The three movements of the suite are
- Non allegro
- Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)
- Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – L’istesso tempo, ma agitato – Allegro vivace – Poco meno mosso – “Alliluya”
The composition asks for a rich orchestral setting:
- piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
- 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
- harp, piano, timpani
- percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, triangle, tambourine, side drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam)
Along with the orchestral version, Rachmaninoff also wrote an arrangement of the suite for two pianos.
I. Non allegro
The Rachmaninoff suite now offered a second opportunity to focus on the orchestra. In the first movement, I enjoyed the excellent coordination within the orchestra, its very good discipline, the alert, engaged playing. The plasticity of the sound was excellent, as was the dynamic control. In general (i.e., within the restraints of the acoustics in this hall), also the balance between strings, woodwinds and brass was outstanding, and the sound was transparent, thanks to relatively light articulation.
The main theme is fairly martial, but Dausgaard kept enough flexibility in rhythm and dynamics to avoid an excess of “military feeling”. And of course, there are extended lyrical, even serene, contemplative segments in this movement. However, it was primarily the soft segments which suffered the most from the acoustics of the venue.
II. Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)
In the initial fanfares the sound of the muted trumpets dominates. But then, more and more the feeling of a fast Waltz (from the 6/8 meter) dominates. Rachmaninoff writes tempo rubato, and so, the music feels like an endless sequence of hesitations, accelerando, swaying dance rhythm—rubato on very short time scales. One could easily picture a prosy, even overblown interpretation of this music. However, Dausgaard kept the movement (and the articulation) agile, light, flexible. The interjections by the woodwinds were precise, alert, and had excellent sonority. I could well imagine that the meager acoustics actually helped this movement!
III. Lento assai – Allegro vivace – Lento assai. Come prima – L’istesso tempo, ma agitato – Allegro vivace – Poco meno mosso – “Alliluya”
The beginning is Lento—yet includes fast sforzato interjections that are already demanding in terms of coordination. The sf and sff interjections continue in the Allegro vivace part, but then there is this rapid exchange of fast staccato motifs: a virtuosic orchestral showpiece, requiring utmost attention, precision, agility. The atmosphere is constantly changing from outbursts to emote segments, to lyrical parts with sighing motifs. There are also very pictorial segments, where wind seems to be blowing. And there are mysterious, calm moments (where unfortunately again the acoustics swallowed the soft parts in the cello, e.g., at  in the score). Truly (late-)romantic music, which Thomas Dausgaard made most enjoyable!
In many ways, Rachmaninoff appears to have summarized the experience of his life in this last, multi-faceted composition: why otherwise would he have included the “Dies irae” and “Alliluya” themes towards the end? A fascinating work!
I very much liked the music, I liked Thomas Dausgaard’s conducting and the orchestral performance, and I equally enjoyed Steven Isserlis’ playing and interpretation, his approach to the Elgar concerto. If only the acoustics of the venue left me with less of a dubious, disappointing impression! The Wigmore Hall (see my “Concert Venues” page for information) has such excellent acoustics. In contrast, the acoustics in the Royal Festival Hall are so disappointing: sad, really!