Review: A Dynamic Duo—Bell and Isserlis—Are ‘Perfectly Synched’ at Mostly Mozart
By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, August 9, 2017
Not many musicians can match violinist Joshua Bell for the sheer ferocity he brings to his music-making, but cellist Steven Isserlis is his perfect foil. Friends, colleagues, and sparring partners for three decades, they are symbiotic in their electrifying artistry when they play together, and the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello, better known as the Brahms Double, is a tailor-made vehicle for their musical volatility. The double cadenza near the beginning of the first movement is a magnificent piece of string duo writing—Brahms’ skillful use of double-stops makes it sound like a full string quartet is playing. In their performance with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra on August 8, Bell and Isserlis were virtually combustible but perfectly synched and impeccably in tune, physically demonstrative but profoundly connected to the inner life of the passage. It was a breathtaking rendition of this memorable stretch, and firmly established the lofty standard the two musicians would sustain and exceed for the remainder of the bravura performance. The unity of their ensemble spilled into the orchestra, whose playing under guest conductor Andrew Manze was clean and blazing, precise and especially well integrated.
Bell and Isserlis played the second movement as if it were one endless, gossamer melody. The generous rubato applied to certain passages might have been considered self-indulgent if it weren’t so exquisite and heartfelt. Isserlis and the orchestra had a small bit of difficulty locking in together at the top of the rhythmically exacting third movement, but all was forgiven with the aching beauty of the second theme and the thundering chords of the conclusion. As an encore, the two played the slow movement of the Schumann violin concerto, which features considerable interplay with solo cello.
Manze opened the second half with his own arrangement of Contrapunctus XIV, the last piece in Bach’s monumental Art of Fugue. As he told the audience in his engaging spoken remarks, some scholars believe this fugue was the last piece Bach ever composed, and that his dead body was discovered slumped over the manuscript. Manze admitted this story may be apocryphal, but, as he put it, “Let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story.” (“Oh, have I struck a nerve?” he quipped, as the audience tittered.) The Contrapunctus is spiritual and beautiful, and sounded perfectly natural in Manze’s skillful, string-heavy arrangement. The performance had possibly more Romantic sweep and rhythmic looseness than Bach would have intended, but it was tempered by Manze’s good taste and the orchestra’s reverential playing.
Mendelssohn venerated Bach, and he spearheaded the nineteenth century Bach revival with a Berlin performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion when he was only twenty years old. In addition, Mendelssohn composed his Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”) to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Presentation of Martin Luther’s Augsburg Confession, a key document of Lutheranism. Bach was a famous Lutheran—as some have put it, Luther clarified the faith, and Bach set it to music. Thus, Bach and Mendelssohn make a natural concert pairing, and Manze allowed the Bach fugue to segue directly into the Mendelssohn Fifth without pausing for applause. The orchestra’s performance of the symphony was energized and brightly colored. The winds and brass gleamed magnificently in the first movement’s chorale passages, and the passagework in the strings was impressively virtuosic. One could easily imagine a raging drama between opposing faiths. The second movement is a cheerful three-quarter time dance. Manze once again showed his propensity for tasteful rhythmic fluidity and shaping of phrases with maximum dynamic contrast. In the third movement Andante there were some stunning pianissimos, with the violin melody at times reduced to a wispy silken thread.
The exuberant fourth movement takes as its point of departure the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”). It’s truly exciting to hear this famous tune given the full symphonic treatment by Mendelssohn, and it was especially thrilling in this ebullient performance. Manze, with his long expressive arms, precision of intent, and well-informed commitment to the music, is clearly an orchestra favorite; at the concert’s conclusion, when he gestured for the players to stand and be acknowledged, they remained firmly in their seats, applauding him enthusiastically and insisting that he take his solo bow first.
Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in concert at David Geffen Hall on August 8 and 9, 2017. Andrew Manze, conductor; guest soloists: Joshua Bell, violin; Steven Isserlis, cello.
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello
Bach (arr. Andrew Manze): Contrapunctus XIV, from Art of Fugue
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D major (“Reformation”)
Encore: Mr. Bell and Mr. Isserlis performed the Langsam movement of Schumann’s Violin Concerto, with a coda by Britten.
Cover: Joshua Bell, violin and Steven Isserlis, cello from a previous appearance with Mostly Mozart Festival; photo: Richard King.