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 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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