Raves for March concerts: “Schumann’s Cello Concerto”

San Jose Mercury News

Cellist Steven Isserlis and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra scale heights of Schumann concerto

By Georgia Rowe

“With all its expertise in the music of its namesake era, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s forays into the classical and early Romantic repertory can yield abundant rewards. This week’s splendid program by the acclaimed early music ensemble is an excellent case in point.  Friday’s concert at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, conducted by music director Nicholas McGegan, included Romantic works you’re more likely to hear performed by modern orchestras: Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129; Brahms’ Serenade No 2 in A major, Op. 16; and Mendelssohn’s “The Fair Melusine,” Op. 32.  Yet with McGegan leading the kind of crisp, rhythmically buoyant performances that characterize his exploration of Baroque operas and oratorios, these Romantic works sounded newly minted and surprisingly weighty…

“Adding vigor and consummate musicianship to the mix was cellist Steven Isserlis, whose solo work in Schumann’s concerto was nothing short of exemplary… His playing Friday in the fervently imagined, richly scored 1850 work captured its vivacity and remarkable depth of feeling… The cellist sailed through the work’s manic episodes and mournful interludes, negotiating its hairpin turns with keen articulation and a wide range of dynamics in the outer movements. And he conferred glowing, rapturous tone on the slow, long-breathed central movement.

“For his part, McGegan deftly steered the performance through Schumann’s fleet passagework, eliciting brisk, unified playing from each section of the orchestra and enforcing a welcome sense of restraint in the score’s moments of quiet reflection.

“Brahms’ Serenade, presented after intermission, also benefited from McGegan’s firm, clear-eyed approach. In the wistful, rather melancholy first movement, he shaped the music with admirable drive and rhythmic precision; no mushy, overtly sentimental Romanticism for this conductor. The violins, led by concertmaster Katherine Kyme, produced wiry, distinctive tone, and the cellos, prominently arrayed, sounded effusive. Yet the woodwinds, voicing eloquently — gentle clarinets and bassoons, soaring oboes — took pride of place.”

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Philharmonia Baroque’s latest venture into the nineteenth century

Stephen Smoliar

SF Classical Music Examiner

“A Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra program of three nineteenth-century compositions may seem a bit anachronistic (or at least inconsistent with the ensemble’s name);  but they always turn out to be both refreshing and informative.  The nineteenth century was a transitional period in the technology development of musical instruments.  Ensembles were getting larger, composers influenced by the Romantic movement were getting more expressive, audiences were more likely to be paying customers than invited guests, and, as Scott Foglesong observed in his talk before last night’s PBO concert at Herbst Theatre, the role of the conductor was getting stronger and occurring more frequently…

“As always seems to be the case, Music Director Nicholas McGegan served as the perfect tour guide for this journey.  He allowed each of the three compositions to unfold with its own respective rhetorical strategy;  and he was positively jolly with Brahms’ over-the-top approach to his concluding Rondo.  His chemistry with cellist Steven Isserlis made for an accessible presentation of Schumann’s large-scale architecture while also accounting for those details through which the expressiveness of Isserlis’ solo performing would emerge.  To return to my initial adjective, the entire evening was a refreshing take on the nineteenth century, far more satisfying than most of the industrially-polished products we get from major concert halls and recording studios.”

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