The rivalry between Brahms and Wagner was reignited at this year’s Melbourne Festival, with both composers’ works brought to life on the big stage. After concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and international vocal talents, the puzzle was given one last piece by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and Steven Isserlis in Brahms 4 and Isserlis, a celebration of musicality and an immersion in sound.
Steven Isserlis is an acclaimed British cellist, regularly appearing with international orchestras or personal recitals, at which he enjoys devoted and energetic audiences. Revisiting a work previously performed and recorded with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Isserlis by no means rested on his laurels, bringing an exciting and nuanced performance to the chair. The ACO, lead by Richard Tognetti, equal parts virtuosic violinist and master conductor, were in musical communion with Isserlis. Through the Dvořák concerto, musical worlds were created and explored. Within the first movement, Isserlis demonstrated his command of melody and voice, capturing and highlighting some of the more international influences, painting a picture of imagined scenarios. When the woodwind section is featured in the second movement, the cello complements, enhances and details the different tones and timbres of each soloed instrument, showing the complex flexibility of the violoncello. By the time the third movement explores the dynamism of rhythm, Isserlis showed an artistry of the instrument in a mind-blowing capacity. A sense of perpetual motion and range – even within a single cadenza, caused the audience to thunder applause, not allowing the performer to leave until he provided an encore (with just enough humour in delivery to endear).
After a brief intermission, the ACO returned for the star performance of the evening; Brahms Symphony No. 4. On their feet for another 40 minutes, the orchestra transported the audience of almost 2000 to another time and place. The passion on display was so enthusiastic the double basses were manoeuvring 180 degrees between bow strokes – and shared glances between members of the orchestra full of cheekiness and joy belied a love for the music being produced just as strong as the most devoted audience member. As the final note sounded and the audience stood in congratulations, it was clear that there was not another orchestra in the country as accomplished or passionate as the one on stage that evening.