Steven Isserlis and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s STEVEN ISSERLIS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH would have to be one of the most mesmerising and intense concerts by the ACO in a long while. Under Tognetti’s stylish leadership the Orchestra was in magnificent form , and the Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major by Shostakovich as played by guest artist their old friend Steven Isserlis was absolutely amazing .

First we heard the world premiere Samuel Adams Movements (for us and them) which featured fast furious dazzling playing in the first Movement.  The second movement was pulsating and slower.  Tognetti stated the melody the Orchestra embroidered upon that with some sharp spiky comments. The third movement was shimmering and whirling with unusual use of the cellos and the main melody theme held and ‘sung’ like an extra long breath .The last tumbling insistent movement made me think of darting fish underwater.  The work included slow chromatic ascents and sections where the strings were rather fractured and yet interwoven.  

The main highlight of the program though was the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major with Steven Isserlis in an almost overwhelming ,volcanic performance on his 1726 Stradivarius . Isserlis surrenders completely to the music with his shaggy unruly mop of hair, swaying in time to the music and  at times gazing hypnotically into the audience.  Shostakovich’s anguished cello concerto is considered one of the most difficult for that instrument with its extreme technical challenges and includes left hand pizzicato, double stops, runs and harmonics but Isserlis’ performance was mesmerising and masterful, almost transporting us to another dimension.  

In the second movement the cello at first ‘sings’ with a warm tone but this changes to a harsh spiky mood leading to a tumultuous furious whirling full orchestra attack while the cello and piano have a delicate, exquisite conversation. The third movement, the Cadenza, is a towering cello solo – an aching, soaring lament followed by fast and furious sections and including highlights from celeste and clarinet. The final movement revealed Shostakovich’s heart , but it was contained in icy correctness – or was it? The concerto is full of hostility suffering and fragility, fragility, hostility and suffering with transcending moments and cries of anguish and pain.

Another world premiere, with the composer in the audience, opened the second half – Elena Kats-Chernin’s  A Knock One Night, commissioned by Perth engineering  executive Mirek Generowicz to share the dramatic story of his family’s story of arrest by Stalin’s secret police, forced labour camps and post-war journey to Australia. The mood was intense and taut. It began with Tognetti on lyrical singing violin but then cellos and double bass continue a rumbling undertone.  The ‘knock’ theme is strident, insistent and sharply scary – this then changes to scurrying strings ( the escape ?) and then low rich flowing melodies become  stronger and brighter in tone once the family has escaped to safety .

The Haydn Symphony No.104 in D major ( a.k.a the ‘London’ Symphony) began emphatically.  It was full of dynamic, brisk playing, and featured impeccable timing throughout.  It was given a crisp, yet richly nuanced performance full of filigree gentility and with chirpy woodwind.  At times it was stately and refined but this was contrasted with furiously whirling and tumbling sections. Sally Walker’s flute delicately featured in the Andante.  The Symphony bubbled and scurried towards the tempestuous finale. The Orchestra obviously enjoyed playing it as there were big smiles at times.

  With Richard Tognetti,  Director & violin, and Steven Isserlis, cello,  the Australian Chamber Orchestra‘s STEVEN ISSERLIS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH was at the City Recital Hall and the Sydney Opera House  30 June – 4 July 2018.

SAMUEL ADAMS Movements (for us and them) World Premiere*
SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No.1 in E-flat major
ELENA KATS-CHERNIN A Knock One Night World Premiere**
HAYDN Symphony No.104 in D major ‘London’
* Commissioned by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Stanford Live
** Commissioned by Mirek Generowicz to share the dramatic story of his family's journey to Australia.