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Isserlis, Gut Strings and All

Steven Isserlis (cello) and Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Photo by Kim P. Witman/Courtesy of Wolf Trap
Steven Isserlis was back in town on Friday night, this time in the Barns at Wolf Trap, with pianist Kirill Gerstein. The program was different from what they played in 2010 at the Kennedy Center (he also appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra in 2011), but it had many similar qualities. The British cellist is at his best with a soaring melodic line, with some limitations at the loud end of the dynamic spectrum, at least partly because of his preference for wound-gut strings. At the Q&A session that generally occurs at intermissions at Wolf Trap, Isserlis spoke about his preference for gut, noting that all cellists played on them until the years of World War II. With obvious conviction, he said he stands by gut because their sound has a "more human quality," and that steel strings are "harsher" in tone. "I love them: they're my voice," he concluded, and indeed the sound he makes on those strings in soft moments is one of the indelible qualities that makes Isserlis Isserlis.

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Brahms, Cello Sonatas, S. Isserlis, S. Hough
He was at his best in the moody opening theme of the first Brahms cello sonata, op. 38, letting the sound bloom and not giving any sense of being pressed. The two cello sonatas of Brahms are the centerpiece of the program he is touring right now, and Gerstein was a graceful partner for both of them, bringing out embedded motifs in the development of the first movement and embroidering that melancholy first theme with countermelodies at the recapitulation. The second movement was wistful without becoming cloying, and both musicians gave the third movement some Puckish folk inflections. It is, on the whole, a more affecting work than the more outgoing second sonata, op. 99, which concluded this recital. Without some more oomph in the cello tone in the bigger or more agitated movements, really all but the slow one -- and Gerstein was excellent at scaling the power of the piano to his partner's sound -- it just had less to offer here.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, A characteristically furious Isserlis, at his best and most middling (Washington Post, January 28)

Steve Smith, Echoes, 21 Years Apart, in a Homage to Brahms (New York Times, January 28)
Although the Brahms sonatas were certainly fine, the outstanding contributions came in the small pieces dotted around them. Bartók's Rhapsody No. 1 had a free rhythmic approach and dancing pulse, but also a smoldering tone in the slow passages. It was paired beautifully with Ferruccio Busoni's Kultaselle, a set of sweet, longing variations on a Finnish folksong, a memento from the composer's time teaching in Helsinki. Best of all were a pair of Liszt delicacies, the Romance oubliée and Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, both tinged with unexpected harmonies and arching melodic lines that gave voice to expanses of Romantic longing. The encore offered one more chance to wallow in that singing cello tone, an arrangement of Schubert's Lied Nacht und Träume.


Anonymous said...

It seems a bit contradictory to acknowledge Isserlis' point that gut strings were in common use until relatively recently, but also suggest, if a bit indirectly, that they are not up to the sonic demands of 19th century rep. (Robert Battey, in the review you link to, comes right out and says it-- "the music calls for more power and clarity than Isserlis’s equipment has.") I suspect Isserlis would find such statements frustrating and wrong-headed and, as someone with one foot in the HIP world, I would sympathize with him. Further thoughts?

Charles T. Downey said...

True enough. Of course, the piano that goes with the gut-stringed cello would not be quite as powerful. Anyway, my impression is not that Isserlis strings with gut because of any HIP interest. He just likes the sound, but he does not, it seems to me, really modify his sense of dynamics to suit the range possible with gut strings. He loves the singing sound and then tries to juice the loud parts, with sometimes unsatisfying results. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I would agree that Isserlis is not particularly HIP-minded; I just meant that this is a point of commonality. And to be honest, I haven't heard him live so I'm not sure that I have a great sense of his handling of the dynamic range. (Recordings can obviously be very deceptive.) I certainly have no problem with a reviewer who doesn't like what a given musician does with his/her instrument or who admits that they simply prefer the sound of the more modern instrument or ensemble or what have you. It's the implication that the modern timbre and volume is what the music is *supposed* to sound like-- as though that is what the composer really imagined, despite the resources available to them-- that rubs me the wrong way. I don't mean to make too much of this. Your reference was really fairly mild and indirect; I was just surprised to see it from someone who generally writes about historical performance issues with quite a bit of knowledge and enjoyment. And perhaps that other review set me off a bit.