WORKS: Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1; Symphony No. 1; Britten: Sinfonietta, Op. 1
PERFORMER: Steven Isserlis (cello); Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Teodor Currentzis
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 2059818; Blu-ray: 2059814
This DVD captures one concert in a trilogy of programmes at the 2013 KlaraFestival in Bruges, each of which paired works by Shostakovich and Britten. Here we have the former’s First Symphony and Britten’s Sinfonietta Op. 1, both written when the composers were 19-year-old students, alongside the more mature First Cello Concerto.
The distinguished Mahler Chamber Orchestra forms a core of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and boasts formidable solo talent. The astringent Sinfonietta is one of Britten’s more curious pieces, clearly inspired by his encounter with Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. It famously defeated the students of the Royal College with its intricate virtuosity, but is given a wonderful performance here: the second movement floats through exotic, suspended harmonies, while British viola player Joel Hunter ignites the tarantella finale with brisk vitality.
Shostakovich’s student work is, by contrast, astonishingly fully-realised, its satirical first half finding an intensely tragic response in the second. Teodor Currentzis gives a well-shaped account, mostly handling its notorious gear changes, if not always providing sufficient definition (not helped by lacklustre piano playing). While the first movement sometimes feels too deliberate and lacking in humour, the scherzo has demonic bite. The ensuing meno mosso and Lento are graced with the most beautiful, soft-grained hues of Júlia Gállego’s wooden flute, coupled with magnificent contributions from horn and bassoon (Fredrik Ekdahl).
Best of all is the Cello Concerto: Steven Isserlis, at the height of his powers, gives a riveting performance, combining electrifying abandon with spectral stillness. Currentzis is entertaining to watch, with his balletic stance and mobile hands, though he follows Isserlis’s lead and (literally) lets his hair down in the Symphony, with rather unfortunate results. The filming generally follows the score, bar the odd moment when we’re left staring at a page turn.