Mostly Mozart: Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis

by Jonathan Leaf

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 11, 2017

Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis
Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis  

The word that classical music critics most overuse is revelatory. Great as classical music can be, few performances are. Typically, the music was manifestly great before, and it remains so after a superlative interpreter performs it.

But Wednesday night's Mostly Mozart Festival performance by the orchestra was indeed a revelation. Led by the brilliant British conductor Andrew Manze, the ensemble played an encore and three scheduled works: the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, a Bach Fugue and the misnamed Mendelssohn Fifth (Reformation) Symphony.

While the startling revelation appeared with the final work of the evening, the performance opened with violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis taking on the instrumental parts in the beloved Brahms' concerto. Recognizing that he had two of the greatest string players alive beside him, Manze, who is himself a fine violinist, kept the orchestra under control in a riveting performance that displayed Isserlis's soulfulness and Bell's flawless intonation. The audience's many rounds of applause then spurred Bell and Isserlis to perform a touching symphonic encore written by Benjamin Britten.

That was followed by an intermission in which most of the audience undoubtedly wondered how the second half of the show could possibly match the first.

Yet it would do much more than that.

Speaking directly to the crowd, Manze explained that the orchestra would play Bach's final fugue as an introduction to Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony. The connection, he noted, lay in the fact that the Mendelssohn had closely studied the work of Bach and had been the one to reawaken in it during the nineteenth century. Manze then observed that the score that the orchestra would use for Reformation Symphony was from an original, rarely performed version of the piece that included beautiful passages that Mendelssohn had later cut out and that were now generally forgotten.

Performed this way, the symphony was shown to be Mendelssohn's greatest as the missing passages added both beauty and contrast that dramatically improved it and revealed it to be a grand and mighty work fit for the anniversary it was meant to celebrate: the 300th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And the players and the acoustics were as good as I have ever heard them in two decades of attending the Festival.

What a night! Bravi!

The Mostly Mozart Festival continues through August 20 at Lincoln Center. For information and tickets, call 212-721-6500 or visit

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.