ACO: Steven Isserlis plays Shostakovich

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Published: 6th July, 2018

Last Sunday the Australian Chamber Orchestra delivered another brave and invigorating program, thoughtfully spacing three modern works to finish with a vigorous romp through Haydn’s “London” Symphony in D major. A good concert arouses the senses and, hopefully, activates one’s grey matter, and I left feeling sated on both fronts.

The opening work from young American composer Samuel Adams, titled Movements (for us and them) brought a constant driving pulse as ACO got their groove on.  Throbbing waves of pure intervals brought a meditative quality in the quieter moments. It was good to see the responsibility for conducting much of the middle section handed over to violinist Ike See, whilst Richard Tognetti was preoccupied with solo lines. The overall impression was of a flock of musicians bouncing on their collective toes, as an insect-like nervousness kept the interest at a high level.

Before interval we heard the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat. A diminished orchestration meant a smaller than usual string section plus a few extras in the woodwind, brass and percussion. Of course, the ACO did the whole thing without a conductor, and although risky, this worked well. There’s an evident camaraderie between an ever more flamboyant Isserlis and the ACO.  Decades of artistic collaboration shows, and according to the program notes, there’s a fair amount of backstage shenanigans between Tognetti and Isserlis. The ACO has a long history of performing with world-class cellists – Pieter Wispelwey and Giovanni Sollima amongst them – and although Isserlis has the smallest projecting tone of all of them, the fidelity of musical conviction is always crystal clear.

Isserlis talks of the excitement of this concerto, its manic energy. He has this energy in spades. The slower second movement highlighted the trademark Isserlis sound – sweet, expressive and without a hint of Soviet harshness. A magical moment came in the dialogue between the soloist and celeste. In the outer movements there were a few too many occasions when the Isserlis sound gave a distinctly muted effect. Still, Isserlis wields his bow like a swordsman, and it’s this larger-than-life stage presence and gesture that add to his charisma.

Elena Kats-Chernin’s A Knock One Night told the story in four movements of a family running from the fear of Soviet forced labour camps and their eventual migration to Australia. Never one to shy away from the repetition of smaller motivic elements, this was enjoyable listening despite the evocation of fear. Kats-Chernin employed real knocks on the ACO’s string instruments  to represent the knock on the door in the middle of the night as the harbinger of “very bad things.” ACO did a sterling job in the final movement “Peace” with convincing positivity and D major joy.

Haydn’s “London” Symphony, again in D major, notched the collective energy up another level, driven by an inspirational Tognetti. The third movement Menuet and Trio were full of rhetorical jokes, with many an off-beat poke and a few musical giggles along the way. The trio in the particular really demonstrated the ACO’s consummate skill with bending time. Spirit and high-class musicianship in the final movement brought the concert to a rousing end.