In most concert programmes, one might expect Brahms Fourth Symphony to take precedence over Dvorks Cello Concerto. However, it was the latter work that occupied Thursday nights second half at the Southbank Centre, and deservedly so. Following Brahmss intellectually dense symphony, Steven Isserlis lent the Dvork a sense of inspirational vitality and emotional intensity that stole the show.
Brahms himself expressed doubts over his last symphonys popular appeal. It is indeed a work of quite unrelenting asceticism, placing compositional devices and structural organisation over anything else. There were moments when Schiff and the Philharmonia made it difficult listening. The pliant, lilting opening of the first movement was certainly on the slow side, with some rather pointed playing in the winds. When the music did seem to break free of its academic shackles, the strings soared.
The second movement was comfortable and safe in its interpretation, guided and controlled by Schiff, who actually seemed to get a better sound from his forces when not using a baton. There was an easy grace to this movement, and it certainly never threatened to break free of its comfort zone. The third movement was much the same, and by this point I wondered whether an interpretation that went too much the other way one which sounded less measured, less controlled would in fact sound rather crass by comparison. But the playing did seem to open out in the finale, and Schiffs broad brushstrokes brought out some bold, emotive playing from the strings, bringing us back to the sort of tone quality witnessed in Mendelssohns Hebrides Overture, which opened the concert.
The Dvork started with a livelier tempo than the Brahms, and the whole performance seemed invested with a greater sense of exuberance, not least due to Isserlis utterly commanding and emotive playing. A wholesome, round orchestral sound only occasionally seemed to dip in urgency in the middle movement, but there was some brilliant individual playing to make up for it. Schiffs slightly slow start to the finale was brought up to pace by Isserlis, who again lead from the front. However, he was willing to let the tempo relax, almost wilt towards the end, demonstrating some brilliantly compelling playing at the same time. A blistering last few bars provided an infinitely more uplifting close to Thursday nights programme than the Brahms would have done in this performance, and it was Isserlis who quite deservedly had the last word.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk