Steven Isserlis, Paavo Järvi / Tonhalle Orchestra
Prokofiev / Schumann

Tonhalle Zurich, 2016-12-14

4-star rating

2016-12-26 — Original posting

Table of Contents


This was the first of three subscription concerts of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft in Zurich in sequence, all with a similar, but not identical program. The second one was a lunch-time event with just the Robert Schumann’s Symphony No.3. The last one featured both compositions from this concert, plus five pieces from “Signs, Games and Messages” for cello solo by György Kurtág (*1926) in the center. These were not played in the concert that I attended.

The Artists

Steven Isserlis

With the Sergei Prokofiev’s cello concerto, this evening featured a composition that many intuitively (or unknowingly) might regard as difficult, contrary, obstreperous. However, Steven Isserlis (*1958), being of Russian origin, guarantees for a competent and authentic performance on Prokofiev’s work. On top of that, Isserlis is one of a few cellists today that can tackle the immense technical challenges in this concerto.

I have posted a review of a concert with this artist earlier this year, on 2016-02-02. Steven Isserlis then was playing cello concertos by Haydn and Boccherini. I have also reviewed several CD recordings with this artist; of particular interest here might be a comparison of recordings of Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata, op.19, as this touches upon the Russian repertoire. I have added information about the artist in these posts, so I won’t repeat this now. More information is available via Wikipedia.

Paavo Järvi, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

In this concert, the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi (*1962) was directing the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Also here, I have written about concerts and recordings with this artist in several blog posts, so I won’t dwell on Järvi’s biography here. More information can again be found via Wikipedia.

According to the program notes, Paavo Järvi has made one previous appearance with the Tonhalle Orchestra, back in 2009. So, this is the second time that he is guest conductor with the Zurich orchestra. He may not be the ultimate shooting star in today’s conductor scene, but he definitely is a very competent and reliable conductor, and a friendly and pleasant personality. I mention this because the Tonhalle Orchestra is now looking for a successor for its current principal conductor, Lionel Bringuier (*1986). Bringuier’s contract has not been prolonged beyond the season 2017/2018, hence a successor must be announced with the coming 6 – 9 months.

So, parts of the audience must be scrutinizing every guest conductor, guessing whether he came here upon invitation as potential successor, or whether it was the guest’s initiative, looking for potential interesting positions for the near future. I won’t dwell on this any further here, other than saying that he definitely would be more than just a viable candidate. He sure would have my sympathy. For the rest, I’ll leave this topic to the rumor cooks!

Prokofiev: Cello Concerto in E minor, op.58

Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) wrote his Cello Concerto in E minor, op.58 between 1933 and 1938. It features the following movements:

  1. Andante – Poco meno mosso (Andante assai) – Adagio
  2. Allegro giusto
  3. Tema (allegro) – Interludio 1 – Variations 1–3 – Interludio 2 – Variation 4 – Reminiscenza (meno mosso) – Coda (poco sostenuto) – Più mosso

The rich orchestral accompaniment is set for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, castanets, bass drum, snare drum, tambourine), and strings.

The premiere, 1938 in Moscow, turned out to be a complete failure. According to Svjatoslav Richter (1915 – 1997), this was caused by both the cellist and the conductor, who apparently failed to understand the piece (see Wikipedia). It was Mstislav Rostropovich (1927 – 2007) who brought this composition back onto the concert stage, when he performed it in 1947 at the Moscow Conservatory. The concerto is notorious for its huge technical difficulties in the solo part.

Prokofiev later reworked the Cello Concerto op.58 into his Symphony-Concerto, op.125. However, the two compositions are different enough to be viewed as completely different works.

The Performance

Almost 80 years after its premiere, Prokofiev’s concerto may still sound austere, if not repellent to many. However, in this performance, such impressions seemed really far-fetched, if not totally off the track to me. Sure, there are lots of dissonances in Prokofiev’s score, and the composer almost persistently avoided the comfort zone of a full tonal cadenza, and where the harmony reaches the tonic, it tends to progress further immediately. However…

I. Andante – Poco meno mosso (Andante assai) – Adagio

Already the first movement is clearly tonal. One just once needs to accept Prokofiev’s musical language, which isn’t all that difficult to get into. Then, one will find a wealth full of beautiful cantilenas. Some of these are of almost classical serenity, mellow, at least in the Adagio part. With Steven Isserlis at the cello, there was no need for a warm-up phase (neither for the musicians, nor for the audience). Already with the opening bars, the soloist threw himself into the cello part, full of verve. The orchestra continued his melody line almost seamlessly.

In the Andante part, the cello mostly plays in the high descant. A stepping accompaniment, mostly in the bassoons, marks the pace. Prokofiev’s instrumentation is really diligent and clever: it allows both the solo instrument to remain audible at all times, even when violins take over the secondary voice. Isserlis exposed all his passion in the solo, extremely expressive even in the elegiac segments, using a very emotional vibrato. This actually fitted the character of the composition both in strength and in frequency.

Steven Isserlis’ instrument (the soloist plays various instruments—I suspected that in this concert he played a Stradivarius) featured a bright, singing tone, It was very well-balanced, and well-projecting also in soft passages. Its sound never turned nasal.

The orchestral accompaniment sounded very colorful, creating a sometimes almost impressionist atmosphere. Paavo Järvi conducted with clear, precise gestures, he always remained in full control of the orchestra’s dynamics and rhythmic coordination. At the same time, he left ample space / freedom for Isserlis to form his part. Very often, the impulses appeared to come from the soloist. However, even when Steven Isserlis accompanied orchestral sections with almost violent movements of his head, he never challenged the conductor’s role.

II. Allegro giusto

In the second movement adds more interaction between soloist and the orchestral accompaniment, the sound of the cello is mixing more with that of the orchestra. Besides beautiful, flourishing cantilenas, the music also alludes to neo-classicism. It has plenty of amusing, joking motifs, is full of humor. It evades my comprehension how this could possibly have failed with the audience at the premiere! The music is really multi-faceted, entertaining—harmonically alienated classics.

There is an almost whispered middle part, where the soloist plays with mute (con sordino). However, the cello kept its central role at all times. Here, the intonation is challenging is not just for the soloist (mastered well, I think), but also in the orchestra. On the other hand, the solo part also features extremely virtuosic passages, in which Isserlis’ playing was extremely passionate: he was truly playing from his heart, his soul! It should be mentioned, though, that the solo part in general is extremely tricky in the intonation. As much as technically and humanly possible (perfection is impossible here!), Isserlis did not appear to face major issues in this area.

III. (Allegro) – Più mosso

The final movement is longer than the other two combined. Yet, it is not a monstrous piece. Rather, it’s a variation movement with nine segments. It begins with the presentation of a catchy theme—stepping along at a calm pace, yet always urging in its expression. The variations take the music into extreme virtuosity, to the limits where the cello part can merely just about be articulated (with defined / correct intonation, that is). One could see / hear the limitations in this concert, but in Steven Isserlis’ playing, I never sensed virtuosity for its own sake, or pure, extroverted artistry.

The movement also takes the music to serenade-like serenity, on to an interludio that really is a cadenza. Isserlis made this sound playful and unpretentious. The soloist appeared to follow the decaying resonances with his thoughts and ears, sometimes almost like dreaming. The fourth variation loosens its ties to the theme—even more so the following “Reminiscenza“. The latter leads into a Coda and a dramatic, fulminant ending. The entire concerto really is fascinating music, and that evening, the artists presented an excellent and enthralling, intense and vivid interpretation.

Encore — Prokofiev: March, op.65 No.10 (arr. Piatigorsky)

Subscription audiences are traditionally rather conservative. Yet, people in the audience could not resist giving a strong applause. Steven Isserlis selected an encore by the same composer, Sergei Prokofiev: from the Music for Children, 12 Easy Pieces for piano, op.65, the No.10, March in C major, arranged for cello solo by Gregor Piatigorsky (1903 – 1976). It’s a short, but entertaining piece of 1.5 minutes. And for sure, it was more fun to play and to listen to in the version for cello solo (compared to the original for the piano).

Schumann: Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.97, “Rhenish”

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote four symphonies that he listed in his works, by giving them an opus number. Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.97, “Rhenish”, is the last one of these four, even though what we now know as Symphony No.4 was revised and published later. Schumann wrote the Symphony No.3 within five weeks, between 1850-11-02 and 1850-12-09, and Schumann himself premiered it on 1851-02-06 in Düsseldorf. The short duration of the process of composition is a clear indication that this is the result of a very happy period in Schumann’s life. He and Clara had just moved to Düsseldorf, a place which he experienced as vivid and invigorating. One can feel this throughout the five movements of the symphony:

  1. Lebhaft (lively) [3/4; 1/2 = 66; 585 bars]
  2. Scherzo: Sehr mäßig (very moderate) [3/4; 1/4 = 100; 133 bars]
  3. Nicht schnell (not fast) [4/4; 1/8 = 116; 54 bars]
  4. Feierlich (solemn) [4/4; 1/4 = 54; 67 bars]
  5. Lebhaft (lively) [2/2; 1/2 = 120; 329 bars]

The movement IV may feel “extra”, on top of the usual four, which in this case follow the scheme fast – Scherzo – slow – fast. It stands out with its different character, but may also be seen as an introduction to the final movement.

The Performance

Schumann’s (a little over) half-hour Rhenish Symphony after the intermission turned the attention to the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and its guest conductor, Paavo Järvi.

I. Lebhaft

The conductor jumped onto the podium. And he instantly started conducting: the orchestra obviously was well-prepared for this! Järvi interpreted the annotation to the first movement literally, taking that music with lots of momentum, lucid, light and impulsive, rather than exposing the heaviness that many associate with the Rhenish character / temperament. The music appeared full of heart-warming happiness and joie de vivre. Sure, there are also pensive, reflecting moments—but these remain episodes. In the center of the orchestral setting, as almost typical for Schumann, were the four french horns in all their glory: brilliant, mighty in their sound, but never bellowing.

An interesting point: the eight double basses were playing at the left-rear edge of the podium, the cellos behind the first violins, in front of the horns. Overall, the concentrated the important voices on the left-hand side, but it also led to some domination of the left part of the podium & orchestra.

II. Sehr mäßig

In the Scherzo, the performance to me felt transparent, really narrative, in a way. Järvi used a “talking rubato“, which I think was very demanding on the flexibility of the orchestra, and its ability to maintain coordination. The somewhat melancholic, elegiac middle part appeared like a mere episode: the music returns to the narrating, singing Scherzo, building up to a jubilant climax, then retracting into silence.

III. Nicht schnell

The middle movement to me was detailed and carefully articulated. Järvi avoided exaggerations and “rough corners” in articulation and dynamics, e.g., in the fp accents. A solid and tasteful interpretation, in the best sense. As already in the previous movement, the music disappears in ppp.

IV. Feierlich

The “extra” movement starts at a walking pace, dominated by the dense legato of the horns and trombones. It felt like a funeral music or march, with long phrases and melody lines. Paavo Järvi managed to build up tension and expectation, constantly, even across soft passages, leading into a series of fanfares. Thereafter, the music seems to calm down, to retract into silence. However, …

V. Lebhaft

… the ending really is just a transition to the fluent, light-hearted tempo of the final movement, which followed without interruption. An interesting point in Järvi’s interpretation: he added a little hesitation, holding back for the two accents in the p segment around bars 27/28 (and similar recurrences)— just to return to the original tempo instantly. In general, Paavo Järvi used a lively rubato—which the orchestra followed effortlessly. I felt that the musicians in the orchestra were carried along, even enthralled by the music and Järvi’s interpretation.


Both the conductor, as well as the orchestra offered an excellent performance: convincing, compelling, consistent. A remarkable interpretation and performance: given that conductor and orchestra had less than a week for preparation, it was maybe even a top performance?


For the same concert, I have also written a (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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