Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

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Singing Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

Design: John Featherstone. Copy: Rachel Yarham

It was a long, hard slog to the Barbican Hall to perform J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (BWV 232) as part of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. The Mass in B minor (completed in 1749) is a piece of epic proportions — it’s almost two hours long and requires the utmost concentration to keep up with the tricky rhythms, runs, and fugues.

Although I had never sung Bach’s Mass in B minor before, I was familiar with bits of it from listening to recordings over the years. It is a glorious piece. When you listen, it doesn’t sound all that complex because the melodies and harmonies are so pleasing and hummable; however, singing it is another matter! I was forewarned, as my good friend Emma sang the piece with her choir in Boston last year and told me how difficult it was. What I wasn’t prepared for was the non-logical placement of words and syllables on unexpected beats. Learning Bach, I soon figured out, requires the ability to quickly recognize patterns and repeat them at different pitches. Once I understood that, it made many bits of the music easier to learn (multiple sectional rehearsals to “note bash” were also helpful).

To add another degree of complexity (particularly for those singers with perfect pitch), we sang our Mass in B minor in Baroque pitch, which is half a step lower than today’s standard pitch used by most orchestras. Our orchestra for the Mass in B minor, though, was the Bach Camerata, a period instrument ensemble complete with strings, old-school oboes, wooden flutes (they sound beautiful — sort of a cross between a modern flute and a recorder), and horns with no keys (amazing that the musicians can control all the pitches with their embouchures).

Concert day brought the usual marathon afternoon rehearsal, which is always brightened by the fact that it’s the first time we (the chorus) get to see the orchestra and soloists. They did not disappoint. I was captivated from the first duet, “Christe eleison,” between soprano Mary Bevan (whom F and I saw in the ENO’s Mikado last fall) and mezzo-soprano Diana Moore. Moore’s “Agnus Dei” at the end of the piece was also breathtaking. Callum Thorpe delivered resonant bass solos and Ben Johnson‘s tenor was in good form. The Bach Camerata was a joy to listen to and sing with; I was particularly impressed by the two flute players and the accuracy and articulation of the entire ensemble.

By many audience accounts, we pulled off a great performance. The Mass in B minor is exhausting to perform — and probably to listen to — but early reviews and comments point to a success. Our director, DT, certainly seemed really pleased after the first half. It a great experience to learn Bach’s Mass in B minor; I’m glad to have done it, but as a fellow singer pointed out, also glad to move onto the next challenge.

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Singing Mozart & Britten at the Barbican

As a member of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, I was kept busy for the past six weeks as we spent one to two nights a week preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K. 427/417a (1782-83) and Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Op.42 cantata (1948). With a shorter rehearsal period than usual, we all had to put in extra effort, but I’d say it paid off in our concert at the Barbican on 18 October.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

It helped that we had the London Mozart Players as our orchestra for the evening. They are an incredible group of professional musicians and it was an honor to sing with them. The soloist lineup was also impressive, the highlight being Grace Davidson, who sang the Monteverdi Vespers with us in February. Fellow soprano K referred to her as, “she who cannot be faulted” — yes, she is that good. Julia Doyle, Ed Lyon, and Dominic Sedgwick blended well with Davidson in the Mozart mass, and Ed Lyon performed a dramatic Nicolas in Britten’s cantata.

But on to the music. I would venture to say that Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor is one of the few well-known pieces that Mozart wrote in a minor mode, and it carries every bit of weight and drama you might know from works such as his Symphony no. 25 in G minor, Symphony no. 40 in G minorRequiem Mass, and parts of his opera Don Giovanni. Our director, DT, believes the Mass in C minor is even better than the Requiem — the latter, of course, is more often performed and enshrouded in the tragedy of Mozart’s early death before finishing it. But the Great Mass is glorious (and also happens to be unfinished). I love singing Mozart because it suits my voice well; the soprano parts sit comfortably in my upper register and I’m able to bring out my operatic vibrato sound, cultivated back in my Oberlin Musical Union days thanks to exposure to many talented voice majors. My favorite movements to sing in the Mass in C minor were the opening “Kyrie” and the powerful “Qui tollis”:

Along with the heavy and dramatic bits, Mozart’s mass has plenty of tricky runs and a couple of fugues that hearken back to Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. Much of the solo writing foreshadows Mozart’s late operas. I just love it.

Photo credit: FZ

Photo credit: FZ

In contrast to the Mass in C minor, Britten’s cantata Saint Nicolas can only be described as “quirky.” Britten wrote it in 1948 for amateur singers and musicians (plus a solo tenor part for his partner Peter Pears to sing), so it has choral parts for boy sopranos, and small choruses for childlike soprano and alto voices. We had three school choirs join us for those parts, which created a lovely balance of adult and children’s voices. Based on the life of Nicolas, who became the patron saint of sailors and children as well as Santa Claus, Britten’s cantata tells a compelling story of Nicolas’ life, works, and piety before he becomes a saint. The cantata has drama, journeys to Palestine, a storm at sea, and even pickled boys. Britten has also embedded two hymns in the work, which DT rehearsed with the audience so they could join in at the right times.

An Oberlin friend, who is an accomplished musician himself, came to the concert and said that the chorus was “really quite impressive,” especially for an amateur group. Thanks, S! I think the concert went really well and it was incredible to sing with the London Mozart Players. Some audience members complained that the Mozart Mass in C minor was “too much of a sop-fest,” but I didn’t mind a bit. Britten’s cantata was a nice contrast to the mass and highlighted our chorus’ ability to make musical connections with school choirs as well as professional musicians.

Next up: Bach’s Mass in B minor at the Barbican in January. Get your tickets now!

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Summer Singing: An “All-Night Vigil”

This month I participated in wrapping up the Crouch End Festival Chorus concert season with two performances of Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Op. 37, also known as the All-Night Vigil (or Всенощное бдение, for those of you versed in Russian).

Composed in 1915, Rachmaninov’s Vespers is a monumental work: 15 movements of Russian Orthodox texts set a cappella with lots of lush, thick harmonies. As our director DT pointed out, recordings of the piece can last anywhere from 50 to 75 minutes, depending on who is conducting. DT opted for us to sing a speedier rendition, clocking in at 50-53 minutes.

Interestingly, Rachmaninov kept the texts in an older form of Russian, which was more phonetic than modern Russian. For example, in today’s Russian the letter о would be pronounced as а after some consonants. In the Vespers text, the о‘s remain о‘s. (Side note: in our first rehearsal of the Vespers, my brain got quite confused because I could read both the Cyrillic and transliterated texts so didn’t know where to look. I opted to cross out the English transliteration and read the Cyrillic instead. I had to put in some pronunciation reminders for myself, though, since even the older Russian is less phonetic than Ukrainian. It was fun to brush off my Cyrillic-reading skills.)

Language digression aside, the Vespers are much harder to sing than they sound. Lots of hairpin swells, dynamic changes, and sopranos having to sing high and ppp — not to mention the Russian. All those elements together meant I didn’t enjoy singing the piece quite as much as I thought I would, but it was certainly a good challenge and I did like singing in Russian. Have a listen while you’re reading the rest of this post:

We bookended the Vespers with four short a cappella works: Grieg’s Ave Maris Stella, de Victoria’s O quam gloriosum, Gabrieli’s Jubilate deo, and Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 (total musical orgasm — just have a listen below — also that guy is impressive).

We performed this musical program twice: first at Southwark Cathedral in London (where we sang summer concert #1 last year) and then at St. John’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Southwark has great acoustics, but the concert there was tough: it was a Friday evening, so everyone was tired from the workweek; the cathedral was way too warm; there were a lot of us positioned close together but facing out (naturally), which made it hard to hear the other parts.

The concert in St. John’s Chapel was completely different: it’s smaller than Southwark and has incredible acoustics — probably the best I’ve ever experienced as a singer. We performed in a horseshoe shape, which made it easier to hear the other parts. It was also much cooler. There’s a benefit to performing the same program twice (and the second time on a Saturday) — we were all more rested and relaxed, and it was inspiring to sing in such a beautiful and resonant space.

The St. John’s audience was very appreciative and the Rachmaninov harmonies sounded glorious. F said it was his second favorite concert of ours, after February’s Monteverdi Vespers. I’m glad to have finished the concert season on a high note (ha!). Stay tuned for the new concert season…

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