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Isserlis and Gerstein, Terrace Theater

Steven Isserlis:
available at Amazon

available at Amazon
Steven Isserlis came back to Washington for a recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Wednesday night. It was his latest local appearance since a reportedly superlative concert of chamber music at the Library of Congress in 2006 [and, correction noted, concerts with the NSO in 2008 and a recital at Clarice Smith earlier this year.--Ed.]. As he did for that LoC concert, Isserlis featured one of his favorite composers, Robert Schumann, whose 200th birthday will be celebrated this June, with one of the pieces from his new album of Schumann's music, performed with pianist Dénes Várjon. The work selected was Isserlis's arrangement for cello and piano of Schumann's third violin sonata, which the composer created around the two movements he contributed to the F-A-E Sonata, the gift made with Brahms and Albert Dietrich for Joseph Joachim. The third-movement Intermezzo is a gorgeous, long-lined vocalise that translates perfectly to the cello -- indeed, Isserlis has already recorded a transcription of it -- as does the graceful, dancing second movement. The outer movements, although played well and with sometimes frenetic agitation, seemed more awkward on the larger instrument.

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.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, In Performance: Isserlis/Gerstein (Washington Post, January 8)
The following morning it was announced that this concert's capable and sensitive pianist, Kirill Gerstein, was the winner of this year's Gilmore Award ($300,000), this just a few years after having been named a Gilmore Young Artist. Gerstein can definitely play and made mostly easy work of the demands of the Rachmaninov especially, but one had the sense that he had to reign in the sound of the big Steinway to avoid smothering those gut strings, which created a warm, vocal sound but also had limited ability to carry. Gerstein did not always succeed, but it was not entirely his fault. A single encore was earned, a transporting but ethereally calm rendition of Gabriel Fauré's Sicilienne, op. 78.

Schumann, Abendlied (op. 85/12, arr. Joachim)
Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon


Nigel Boon / NSO said...

I hope you won't mind if I point out that Steven has in fact appeared in DC since 2006 - in October 2008 he played Haydn's C major Cello Concerto with the NSO and Iván Fischer. They were wonderful performances and so I am really disappointed that I was unable to get to this recent recital with Kirill Gerstein.
Nigel Boon
Director of Artistic Planning
National Symphony Orchestra

Charles T. Downey said...

Of course I don't mind: correction duly noted. I did not hear that concert, and if it does not show up in an Ionarts search, it must not have happened.

Lindemann said...

I don't mean to pile on, but Isserlis was at CSPAC in May 2009. It was also amazing. I didn't write a review of it, but the Post did:

Charles T. Downey said...