The opening of the recital was the high point, a colorful performance of Britten's Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 65, a work Isserlis has not yet recorded (not, as it turns out, in the Britten Collector's Set from EMI, which I really should acquire). Isserlis's tone was alternately introspective (dreamy distance in the opening and the third movement Elegia) and enigmatic (harmonic swoops and hollow thuds in the fourth movement), serenade-like (in the delicate scherzo) and barbaric (last movement). Edith Eisler, in a profile of Isserlis for Strings, stated that the British cellist, playing for this concert on the Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius on loan from the Royal Academy of Music, uses wound gut strings. This probably explains a certain lack of power in the sound, especially in sections calling for wailing tone on the A string or for rapid-fire gymnastics, in which there was often more percussive click than audible tone.
Rachmaninov's cello sonata (G minor, op. 19) concluded this pleasing recital. The work has some lovely moments, especially the homage to Schubert's Der Erlkönig in the second movement (Allegro scherzando), but wallows (like so much of the composer's music) in saccharine harmonies that have since become over-familiar in the playing of too many cocktail pianists. (Introducing the piece, Isserlis repeated the anecdote told in the liner essay of his recording, about the change of dynamics from pp to ff, in the last movement's coda. His pianist grandfather, Julius Isserlis, played the work in Russia with the dedicatee, cellist Anatoly Brandukov, and his grandmother relayed that this was a change approved by Rachmaninov himself.) It was beautifully played, and this sonata does not grate on my nerves as much as some of the composer's other pieces, but it left the Britten at the top of the pile.
Joe Banno, In Performance: Isserlis/Gerstein (Washington Post, January 8)
Schumann, Abendlied (op. 85/12, arr. Joachim)
Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon