Isserlis and Tognetti concert review: a marriage made in heaven

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Richard Tognetti doesn’t have the air of a megalomaniac, but it looks like he may be staging a takeover, if the latest Australian Chamber Orchestra tour, just ended, is any guide. This emphatically isn’t a chamber concert. More like a full-scale symphony. Watch out, SSO. (Only serious.)
Brahms 4, as the name of the tour implies, put Brahms’ fourth symphony (in E minor, opus 98; his last, acclaimed as his greatest) firmly on the menu, alongside Dvorak. Specifically, Dvorak’s cello concerto (in B minor, opus 104), regarded as the best ever written.
To give the latter some memorable impetus, Tognetti, et al, have once again engaged the mad professor, Steven Isserlis (take Robert De Niro, make him British, give him the locks of a seventies rock god, an eccentric, molto expressivo disposition and cello virtuosity).
While my partner found his flamboyance contrived and annoying, I didn’t care. For two reasons. Firstly, his vaunted technique is exemplary; extraordinary; superb. Secondly, his interpretation is imbued with as much style, individuality, character, colour and energy as his theatricality. Thirdly (ok, make that three reasons), that very theatricality only but enhances and enlivens the experience, stripping it of all pretensions to the mock solemnity that has too long pertained, or been perceived to pertain, necessarily, to classical music. And his personality is completely relative to the attitude the ACO brings to performance. It’s a marriage made in heaven.
There was an unexpected bonus, too, in the form of an encore solo performance of Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds; mind you, Isserlis’ adaptation and arrangement of this traditional tune was quite different from Casals’.
Thanks to the deployment of period instruments (or adaptations that bring them close) and meticulous playing we were privy to renditions of these two seminal works of an ilk that Brahms & Dvorak would’ve been. For example, Tognetti has two gut strings on his violin, emblematic of the warm tonality that characterised this augmented orchestra as a whole. The authenticity was enhanced by the instruments being tuned to period pitch, as well.
There are many moods in the Dvorak and, even on glancing at the provenance of the piece, one shouldn’t be surprised. The initial inspiration seems to have been the thunderous plunge of Niagara Falls, which the composer was visiting, in the summer of 1893, having at last succumbed to the (strictly professional) overtures of one Jeanette Thurber, widow of a New York grocery tycoon, who was desperate to have him as director of her conservatory. As legend has it, he then and there declared, ‘Holy Mother! This will be a symphony, in B minor.’ Strange, yes. But apparently true.
At the same time, Dvorak was pining for his native Bohemia and his sister-in-law, Josefina, with whom he, too, was once romantically affiliated, became gravely ill and died. In a way, the work charts the story of Dvorak’s life: his unrequited affections; the uprooting of his family for three immensely productive, but not especially happy years in America; the painful demise of his true love. I mean, this was the age of Romanticism.
Dvorak had only recently heard the work of Wagner, which almost undoubtedly influenced him, as it probably did all his contemporaries. This might well explain the scale and drama of the opening section of the first (allegro) movement. An astonishing sidelight is that, on completion of the work in its entirety, he was displeased; very unlike his friend and mentor, Brahms, who was overawed and, for all we know, just a little bit envious of his protege.
As emotive as the soloing can be, it’s by no means a showy, virtuosic part: the art of its reading is, indeed, in the feeling. Happily, Isserlis is much more than a flawless technician and really ‘gets’ Dvorak, in my estimation. Suffice to say, Isserlis and the bumped-up (to forty-eight, I think) ACO brought the spectrum of shades and moods to the fore, in a manner as impassioned as one imagine Dvorak might’ve been in writing it. The result is, by turns, tumultuous and dolorous; at all times, deeply affecting.
At the time and since, a cliched controversy has dogged the work, inasmuch as there have been questions over plagiarism, versus homage. Dvorak was upfront about his interpolation of African American work songs and the like. Certainly, the new world is as sonically evident as the old, throughout. In fact, in a way, far from being exploitative, he presciently pointed the way for the future of American music: that it must be based in that brought from Africa, by slaves, which was then shaped and reshaped by the circumstances, environments and milieux in which it found itself.
The other hokey, folky influence comes from his own canon, in the second (adagio ma non troppo) movement. Josefina’s favourite of his songs was Leave Me Alone (opus 8, number 1). Heard in biographical context, it’s complexion becomes positively lachrymal and the musicians on stage shamelessly exploit our vulnerability, imbuing it with a pregnant sorrow. By way of trivial, incidental observation, if David Carbonara, composer of the Mad Men theme, didn’t pick up a thing or two here, I’ll be a Madison Avenue monkey’s uncle.
Perhaps the key to the success of this presentation is that one is liable to be rendered emotionally exhausted, or at least (depending on one’s susceptibility, or resilience) fulfilled, by interval. From the first breath of wind instruments to the dying strains of cello and final, explosive orchestral flourish, these collaborators have conspired to surpassing brilliance, but without the brash, brilliant sound of a modern symphonic orchestra, thanks to the period pedantry of the instrumentalists. And their instruments.
And so to Brahms. Little wonder he and Dvorak got on so famously, if the comparable musical drama of which they were capable is anything to go by. Brahms 4 is mighty. Back in the day, it was Brahms vs Wagner. It was the nineteenth century’s and Europe’s state of origin. There was a cheer squad that derided Brahms as an also-ran; mediocre; hollow; thick as a brick. One of his peers even described his titanic E minor symphony as displaying ‘mousy obsequiousness’. That’s a long way from, say, Leonard Bernstein’s estimation, which has this work as ‘loaded with symphonic dynamite’. Tognetti and the ACO, which, for this purpose, enlisted its usual coterie of guests, as well as past and present members of ACO2, detonated all of it. This, despite deploying an orchestra little more than half the size of the usual quota for this work. It’s typical of Tognetti’s perfectionistic dedication to authenticity, which either counterpoints or underscores his adventuresome nature, depending how you look at it. There’s a tension: by adhering to a formation faithful to the era, he rediscovers a vitality in the music which often lacks with double the firepower.
The ACO, with a little bit of help from their friends, can even make Dvorak and Brahms sound better.

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