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7.2.14

Why Steven Isserlis Waggled His Wig

With your ailing moderator having taken to bed last night, we thank Friend of Ionarts Robert 'Mecki' Pohl for the following thoughts on the Thursday evening concert by the National Symphony Orchestra.

available at Amazon
S. Isserlis, Why Handel Waggled His Wig
(Faber, 2006)
With Mr. Ionarts himself under the weather and out of the picture, it falls to me to write about the latest National Symphony Orchestra concert. The first piece on the program, Haydn's Symphony No. 72 was entirely new to me. It was also new to the NSO, having never been played before in any of their previous 12,121 concerts. Which is a pity, as it is, as so much of Haydn, full of surprises. One reason why it is so rarely played is that the horn parts are (according to conductor Christoph Eschenbach) “tremendously difficult” - and there are four of them, to boot. The second movement featured a lovely duet between the first violin and the flute, and just to show that this was not some kind of fluke, the final movement, a theme and variations, had each variation played by a different instrument: first the flute, then cello, violin, and finally, and most impressively, bass. After another variation that featured, once again, the horns, the theme reappeared, and the piece was over.

The second piece, in contrast, featured old friends. Both Steven Isserlis, whom I have heard many times over the last fifteen years, and the Schumann cello concerto, which I have listened to countless times. Once again, both came through. Isserlis, who writes that Schumann invites you into his inner life as no other composer does, invited us to join him, with great sweeping gestures of his arms as he finished another of the phrases. Isserlis is also one of the all-time great musical salesmen: he could sell Khachaturian to the Azeris. And there was no doubt that the audience was buying. The NSO, for its part, ably supported the cellist. (I believe that's the term; frankly, I barely noticed them, as my attention went entirely to the cellist. It is thus that the amateur is differentiated from the professional.)


Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, NSO offers unusual Haydn and Brahms, plus cellist Steven Isserlis in Schumann concerto (Washington Post, February 7)

Steven Isserlis, What is it like to come from an intensely musical family? (New Statesman, February 6)

Peter Aspden, Cellist Steven Isserlis on his pianist grandfather and his compositions (Financial Times, January 10)
The final piece, Brahms's first Piano Quartet (op. 25) is one of my favorites. As orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg, it was new to me. The first movement was pretty much as expected: Though interesting to hear the familiar notes played by unfamiliar instruments, it did not go much beyond that either. I also would have liked to hear more urgency in the first tutti statement of the theme, though Eschenbach brought out the languid and musical side of the movement quite beautifully.

In the second movement, the trumpets came in with the theme, and it was a revelation, as if this was what Brahms was really after. From there, the piece grew in leaps and bounds, and soon it was as if one was listening to a long-lost Brahms symphony.
It was the final Rondo all Zingarese where Schoenberg really went to town. The orchestra -- which had grown over the last two pieces -- now filled the whole stage, and the music became all-enveloping. Xylophones, glockenspiels, snare drums, and cymbals added textures and colors that Brahms wouldn't have dreamed of. One expected the Kennedy Center organ to burst in at any moment. Thus did Schoenberg drag Brahms out of the nineteenth century fully into the twentieth century.

This concert repeats tonight and Saturday evening (February 7 and 8, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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