Steven Isserlis, Richard Egarr / ZKO
Haydn / Boccherini / Mozart

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-02-02

4-star rating

2016-02-05 — Original posting
2016-09-20 — Brushed up for better readability

Table of Contents


Last year, Sir Roger Norrington, the former Principal Conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester, ZKO), stepped down from his position. He then was elected Honorary Conductor, see the last concert review. Starting in the season 2016/17, Daniel Hope will take up his position as Music Director of the ZKO.

This “in-between” season is a chance for guest conductors: in the concert of 2016-02-02 Richard Egarr directed the orchestra. Egarr is a British harpsichordist and conductor. He is an expert in historically informed playing (HIP), who also studied with the late Gustav Leonhardt.

So, exactly one week after the last concert with the ZKO (under Norrington), I met that ensemble again, in the same hall (from virtually the same seat), also with classic repertoire, but this time conducted by Richard Egarr, who was sitting at the harpsichord, which was standing in the center of the stage. The instruments formed a half-circle around the harpsichord (the two violin voices facing each other), all musicians standing (with the exception of the cellos, of course). Egarr had assistance in the direction, through the ZKO’s experienced concertmaster, Willi Zimmermann.

Mozart: Symphony No.17, K.129

The concert opened with the Symphony No.17 in G major, K.129, composed 1772 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), at the age of 16 years. The symphony features the following movements:

  1. Allegro, 4/4
  2. Andante, 2/4
  3. Allegro, 3/8

The Performance

The Role of the Harpsichord

Given Egarr’s vast experience in historically informed playing, I wondered why he didn’t really use the harpsichord: for the most part, he reached for the keyboard merely for a few notes (almost like an alibi function), but otherwise preferred directing through moving his arms and body. It is true that Mozart’s music is “complete” in the sense that it does not require filling the harmonies through a keyboard instrument, and an orchestra such as the Zurich Chamber Orchestra does not require rhythmic support / assistance from a harpsichord. Nevertheless, this instrument accentuates, clarifies the rhythmic structure to the listener. With an early Mozart symphony such as this one (or works of that period in general), the sound accentuation through a harpsichord is a standard feature.

The harpsichord issue aside, particularly in the fast movements, we heard a solid interpretation, with compact, well-rounded and warm sound, without rough edges, without vibrato (as expected), at a natural pace, with fairly soft articulation, not really aimed at showing off, while still virtuosic. But to me, the sound was too dense, the orchestra too large for such an early one of Mozart’s symphonies. And after having experienced (and very much liking) Roger Norrington’s style of interpretation with this orchestra, I often wished for a bit more confrontation / “upsetting”, a bit more “Amadeus” (talking about the film, just to be clear).

I. Allegro

The first movement is a regular sonata movement (exposition — development — recapitulation) with repeated exposition. Mozart also writes a repeat sign for the second half, and one can assume that in the early phases of the development of the sonata movement form, the second part (development + recap) was repeated, too. The question is whether one sees this Allegro as an example for the early phase of the sonata movement (both repeats), or whether one wants to put this into the context of mature Vienna classics (just exposition repeated). I regard both options as legitimate in this symphony (the second repeat of course also adds extra duration, giving the movement more weight within the symphony).

Egarr opted for the latter option (repeating just the exposition), even highlighting the transition (general rest) between development part and the recapitulation by adding a fermata. This helped listeners in keeping track of the sonata form.

Transition to the Andante

Egarr then added a “cadenza” after the movement, probably with the idea to “illustrate” the transition to the Andante. That’s a practice that almost certainly was common in baroque times, probably less so in the Vienna classics. I found Egarr’s insert rather questionable, in particular because he based it on the last motif from the preceding movement: apart from “filling” the harmonic transition, this cadenza did not really set the stage for the second movement.

The Andante was played at a pleasant pace and was dynamically differentiated. It featured some extra ornamentation, and gap-filling transitions on the harpsichord. Overall, however, the playing was again in the style of the mid-period (rather than the early) Mozart.

Haydn: Cello Concerto No.1 in C major

The Soloist

For the next compositions in the program, the British cellist Steven Isserlis (*1958) entered the stage. Isserlis is one of today’s leading cellists: born in London, into a musical family; his grandfather, the pianist Julius Isserlis, was one of 12 musicians allowed to leave Russia in the 1920s to promote Russian culture, but he never returned. At age 14 Steven Isserlis moved to Scotland to study with Jane Cowan, 1976 – 1978 he studied with Richard Kapuscinski at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and he was influenced by Daniil Shafran. The Wikipedia entry on Isserlis has this nice anecdote about the artist’s provenance (apparently cited from an interview article in the Financial Times 2014-02-22):

(…) Steven Isserlis revealed that on arrival in Vienna in 1922, his pianist grandfather and father found a flat, but the 102-year-old landlady refused to take in a musician, because her aunt had a previous musician tenant who was noisy and would spit on the floor—this tenant was Ludwig van Beethoven.

And here’s another, interesting story about Steven Isserlis’ father and grandfather, posted by the cellist on Facebook.

The Composition

The Cello Concerto No.1 in C major, Hob. VIIb:1 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) is vastly different from the early Mozart symphony in character and maturity, but with Steven Isserlis, the focus now was on the soloist, who now caught almost all of the attention. But let’s briefly look at the composition: This concerto (composed around 1761 – 1765) has long been thought to be lost, but in 1961 it was re-discovered in Prague; it features the following three movements:

  1. Moderato, 4/4
  2. Adagio, 2/4
  3. Finale: Allegro molto, 2/2

The Performance

I. Moderato

This is a brilliant concerto that easily leads cellists to indulge in a virtuosic show (if not exhibitionism!). Steven Isserlis resisted these temptations: already in the orchestral introduction he won the listener’s heart by playing with the tutti part and vividly interacting with the orchestra and living with and in the music. And the solo part itself was such a joy to watch and listen!

There was nothing extroverted in Isserlis’ playing, no showing off. The soloist was totally immersed in this music, enjoying it himself. He was listening actively, singing through the instrument, making vivid gestures, sometimes even spontaneously conducting with his bow. Yet, the soloist appeared completely unpretentious, played with very little vibrato, very often kept his playing between f/mf and p, if not pp. Isserlis’ Stradivarius cello with its mellow, exquisite, differentiated and well-balanced sound had no problem projecting across the orchestra. Of course, Haydn’s prudent instrumentation and orchestral texture take part in this.

Isserlis’ own cadenza remained playful. It was matching very well his interpretation / view of the concerto. Needless to say that the artist has left technical issues far behind: he could afford to (seemingly) “just feel and enjoy the music”!

II. Adagio

All of the above also applies to the Adagio — even more, actually: this was a serene contemplation in a world of dreams, introverted, often retracting into pp / ppp, even beyond unpretentiousness. Isserlis formed wonderful tension arches, listening to and following Haydn’s modulations (and those of his own cadenza). It was such otherworldly playing with infinite joy and happiness, a really great moment!

III. Finale: Allegro molto

This continued through the final Allegro molto, where Isserlis appeared completely carried away, playing with minimal bow movements. Compared to the soloist, maybe the orchestra was almost too aggressive in its articulation?

Boccherini: Cello Concerto No.3 in G major

After the intermission, the program switched to Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1895), a prominent, traveling cello virtuoso, and a prolific composer. He wrote a large number of chamber music, and more than a dozen cello concertos. Just like Haydn’s concerto, Boccherini’s Cello Concerto No.3 in G major, G.480, also features three movements:

  1. Allegro, 4/4
  2. Adagio, 4/4
  3. Allegro, 3/8

Even though it’s the same genre, that concerto is entirely different from Haydn’s. For one, Boccherini’s personal playing style, and hence the solo part in this concerto is quite different. It’s at least as virtuosic as Haydn’s C major concerto, though. However, his composition style in general is not (yet) entirely classical, but rather following (late) baroque esthetics. Equally important: Boccherini’s orchestral setting makes this sound / feel like a chamber concerto. There are no wind instruments, just four string voices.

The Performance

In major parts of the concerto, the accompaniment consists of merely two violin voices, with lower voices pausing (in these parts, the absence of the harpsichord is intended). I can’t understand, though, why the string voices in the orchestra were played by two instruments each: solo staffing would be OK (at least for a more intimate venue), three or more are OK as well (they just need to play a little more softly). However, two instruments per voice is typically regarded “impossible”, as this will never sound clean. Indeed, I felt that the sound homogeneity was suffering: often, I heard the individual instruments rather than a single voice. The only thing that made this more or less acceptable was, that the instruments were played without vibrato.

This concerto was even more suited to bringing forward the intimate qualities of Isserlis’ playing: the Adagio made me feel like in the silence of a nightly, moon-lit scene; I really liked the empathic, naturally sounding ornaments in the solo part. Compared to Haydn’s concerto, the virtuosic, well-adapted, but short cadenzas (again Isserlis’ own) in the fast movements seemed to stand out more. Though, that was just because of the generally simpler texture of this composition.

Encore — Casals: “Song of the Birds”

Not unexpectedly, the applause was frenetic: Steven Isserlis rewarded it with an encore, the “Song of the Birds” by Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973). That is completely different in style, but still an excellent fit to both the soloist’s playing style, as well as to the slow movements in the preceding concertos (thanks to Sarah B. for helping me with finding out about the encore!). See the second appendix below for a historic recording of the encore, with the composer playing.

Haydn: Symphony No.68 in B♭ major

With the final piece, the Symphony No.68 in B♭ major, Hob.I:68, by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), composed 1774/75, the orchestra had a chance to demonstrate its talents. It was clearly the highlight for the orchestra, this time with the full staff, and really well-played. The symphony features four movements, as typical for the style of the Vienna classic period:

  1. Vivace, 3/4
  2. Menuetto, 3/4 — Trio, 3/4 — Menuetto da capo
  3. Adagio cantabile, 2/4
  4. Finale: Presto, 2/4

The Performance

I. Vivace — II. Menuetto

I liked the fluent, fresh and natural pace in the first two movements. The Menuetto remained light, dance-like, not excessively leisurely, and the reduction to a concertino in parts of the Trio seemed like an excellent idea to me. All repeats were played in the first pass of the Menuetto and in the Trio. This is Haydn, not Mozart, hence it was correct to avoid excessive dynamics (as in the Mannheim School, also picked up by Mozart, especially in younger years). Richard Egarr filled (some) general rests with short harpsichord passages: I quite liked that idea.

III. Adagio cantabile

The slow movement (Adagio cantabile) is played con sordino in the violins, creating a very special atmosphere: the playing was very light, with distinct dynamic contrasts. There were intimate, but also joyfully dramatic moments, as well as sections that reminded me of a peasant / folk dance. I found this to be a compositorial delicacy, and a cabinet piece in the interpretation: superb playing, wonderfully structured, and with very nice bassoon solos. Even without the second repeat this was the longest movement in this symphony; given that we were approaching the end of a long concert, it was a good idea not to repeat the second part.

IV. Finale: Presto

The final movement (Presto) acted as the “last dance”, with a funny gag at the end with solo violins. It’s a virtuosic “hit”, maybe a bit too fast, especially in the extra-fast stretta. Ornaments often were played rather superficially; the bassoon and other wind instruments were overstrained in the articulation of rapid passagework. However, this did not affect the overall achievement: within a single week, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra has (together with the soloists) delivered two highlights of the concert season: thanks and congratulations!

The Encore, Performed by its Creator

Here’s Steven Isserlis’ encore, “The Song of the Birds” by Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973), played by the composer himself (thanks to Sarah B. for the link!):

A CD Relating to the Concert

Steven Isserlis has recorded the Haydn cello concertos on the following CD, together with Sir Roger Norrington and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe; I have also discussed this recording — along with others — in an earlier blog post:

Haydn: Cello concertos, Steven Isserlis, Sir Roger Norrington, CD cover

Joseph Haydn: Cello Concertos Nr.1 in C, Nr.2 in D; Sinfonia concertante in B, Hob.I/105

Steven Isserlis, Sir Roger Norrington, Chamber Orchestra of Europe

RCA Red Seal / Sony (CD, stereo); ℗ 1998 / © 2010
Booklet: track listing only

Haydn: Cello concertos, Steven Isserlis, Sir Roger Norrington, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link


For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for This posting is not a translation of that German review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack. I create the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.

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