If chamber music at its best is an intimate conversation among kindred spirits (or friends), then in Sunday’s Celebrity Series concert with the Denk-Bell-Isserlis Trio at Symphony Hall, we witnessed a thrilling, yet intimate conversation. The three celebrated musicians, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis, and pianist Jeremy Denk, recorded an acclaimed Brahms CD several years ago, which led, eventually, to this 10-city tour of the U.S. The roots of their friendship run deep. As “Strings” (magazine) put it, “It was almost 30 years ago that Bell (then 19 and five years into the launch of his public career) met Steven Isserlis at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, where they played chamber music together. That encounter in 1987 inaugurated a longstanding friendship with the British cellist, Bell’s senior by a decade. Spoleto is also where, in 2004, Spoleto is also where, in 2004, the violinist first got to know fellow Indiana University alum Jeremy Denk. Bell’s mother presciently suggested they’d be good recital partners. “We know each other’s foibles and tendencies, and have all chosen to play with each other over a long period of time.”
Bell noted at the time of the earlier project that the trio’s success lay in the balance between creative cohesion and tension. “It felt like family getting together,” Bell said. “We have three very strong personalities. There were some tense moments.” “We’re three pretty strong characters with our different views,” Isserlis agreed. “But we met in the end, we were in a good mood at the end, and that’s a good sign. We evolved.… It turned into something unexpected,” Bell concluded. “Two gloriously romantic trios are paired with two major wartime masterpieces. It should be quite an emotional journey,” Isserlis predicted, correctly.
The immensely popular Joshua Bell has appeared on the Boston Celebrity Series ten times. Although this is a very overdue debut for Isserlis on the series, pianist Jeremy Denk has enjoyed their sponsorship twice, most recently in spectacular program featuring four violin sonatas of Charles Ives with violinist Stefan Jackiw and the vocal group Hudson Shad. Patrons in the packed Symphony Hall experienced t a concert few of them will forget, especially the piano trios by Shostakovich and Ravel.
Although Sunday found the players at the beginning of their 11-city tour, the three played, as the saying goes, as if they had been together for years. There was great elegance and musical camaraderie in their playing, and beautifully honed dynamics and phrasing. While we were listening to three amazing virtuosi, we sensed that their partnership had even increased the depth of their understanding. And behind all the spectacular, but understated, virtuosity, came a sense that these friends really loved playing together.
Older branches of the Isserlis family tree have a direct line to Felix Mendelssohn, so I imagine this trio had extra-musical value for Isserlis. Mendelssohn dedicated his Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 to the violinist Louis Spohr, who played through it with the composer at least once. A notable feature of the finale of this work is its use of the melody of a chorale taken from the 16th-century Genevan psalter, “Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir,” as the culminating melody. The tune is known in English as Old Hundredth and is commonly sung to the lyrics “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” The passionate opening began this concert wonderfully, and it was a pleasure enjoy such gorgeous virtuosity. I have been hearing Denk for years, and I have always been impressed. (His thoughtful writing, especially his blog Think/Denk, cannot be missed, and he has a book in the works for Random House). The Mendelssohn Trio achieved a big success, with about half the audience, whistling its praise.
The Shostakovich Trio in E Minor, Op. 67 was the highlight of the recital. After the just audible opening harmonics on the cello, the violin the enters in its middle register, and then the piano in the bass. From that start, the players held me spellbound. Those who love Shostakovich heard a performance for the ages. This dark piece, alas, has a tragic back story, like so much by this composer. Just before he wrote it, Shostakovich’s closest friend, musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky died suddenly at age 41. Like so much of Shostakovich’s music, this work reflected (1944) the world situation, the Russian situation, and is generally deeply emotional and elegiac, often unmistakably tragic.
Rachmaninoff’s Trio Élégiaque No. 1 in G Minor, filled with sumptuous songfulness and mournfulness, came across with throbbing heart. The piano part, meant to be played by its virtuoso composer, is truly lovely.
Luckily, the “telephone diplomacy” led to scheduling Ravel’s amazing Trio in A Minor, which I suspect is many people’s favorite trio. The three virtuosi celebrated it fabulously. The cello caught and kept my rapt attention throughout; affect just pours out of this player. Ravel, a genius at orchestration, worked magic with this trio.
In sum, four elegant, exciting, and exquisite performances.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.