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Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin

With your moderator still recovering from eye surgery, we thank Friend of Ionarts Robert 'Mecki' Pohl for the following thoughts on Thursday's recital by Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin. This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Cello Sonatas, S. Isserlis, R.Levin
(Hyperion, 2014)
The first indication that this would not be just another concert of Beethoven's music for cello and piano came when entering the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. At this concert by Steven Isserlis, presented by Washington Performing Arts, one was confronted not with a giant shiny black Steinway, but with a brilliantly polished, wood-grained fortepiano. To go along with the gut strings Steven Isserlis prefers, Robert Levin was playing the ancestor of a modern piano, the instrument on which Beethoven himself composed.

The difference was remarkable, and, in the main, a real improvement. Starting with the quiet Adagio introduction of the first sonata, the warmth of the fortepiano meshed beautifully with the tone of Isserlis's gut strings. The revelations continued even through the sprightly Allegro, with notes that would otherwise be covered up being allowed to shine through. Particularly the quiet section that leads into the final, furious run was so subdued that it appeared that the fortepiano was in another room. As the first movement came to a triumphant end, it was a real testament to the restraint of the audience that nobody burst into applause.

In op. 102, no. 2, which ended the first half of the program, once again it was the Adagio that shone through, with its sublime notes flowing from Isserlis's bow and making a piece that has been played thousands of times feel truly new. (Why the fortepiano is not the go-to instrument in this modern age became clear during the intermission, when a technician came out to tune it, a job that took most of the time available.)

Other Reviews:

Jeremy Eichler, Uncorking Beethoven, one cello work at a time (Boston Globe, October 28)

David Weininger, Steven Isserlis delves into Beethoven at the Gardner (Boston Globe, October 24)
The second half of the program opened with the variations on Mozart's “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from The Magic Flute. Once again, it was the quiet movement that was revelatory; rather than being the quiet piece before the last restatement of the theme, it became under Isserlis and Levin's fingers the central point of the whole piece, the axle on which the whole thing turned. To have ended the concert with anything but op. 69 would have been a real mistake. Even with this crowd-pleaser, there were new things to be heard, whether a few runs that Isserlis and Levin added, or the moments where Levin had the fortepiano sounding more like a harpsichord.

As an encore, the two musicians offered up more Beethoven: a piece for mandolin and harpsichord which Isserlis said was much too good to be left to them. Levin quickly added that they “apologize to any mandolin players,” to which Isserlis replied “no we don't” and proceeded to play the fairly flashy piece with his usual good cheer and skill. It was a wonderful end to a remarkable concert.

The good news is that the rest of the Beethoven Sonatas will be played later this season by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. The bad news is that this concert is not until April 13.

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