IN: Reviews

Isserlis and Shih Melt Hearts


Steven Isserlis (file photo)

Ordinarily one does not begin a review describing an encore, but years from now, J.S. Bach’s “Ich ruf’zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 639 (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ), in account from cellist Steven Isserlis and his longtime collaborator pianist Connie Shih, will remain in my heart. Their exquisite, understated interpretation exceeded in sheer beauty much of what I have heard in 15 years of reviewing hundreds of very good concerts.

This is not to say the entire evening wasn’t also an unusually moving, because it was. But those in Rockport on Friday who know this cellist’s playing only from his many CDs experienced a huge treat hearing him in Shalin Liu with its intimacy and world-class acoustics. No one would be surprised by the great beauty this world-class cellist drew from his 1726 Marquis de Corberon Strad; he shaped lines with polish, subtlety, and finesse. The wonderful pianist Connie Shih collaborates in ways most musicians can only dream about. The entire evening left an indelible impression of rare beauty.

The concert was to have featured Beethoven’s Sonatas for Piano and Cello Nos. 1 and 5. At the last moment, the duo substituted Nos. 2 and 4. No matter. These were dramatic, edge-of-your-seat performances, bursting, at times with the sheer pleasure of the duo in sharing such monumentally amazing music. Shih astonished with fire and real elegance. That Isserlis knows and adores these sonatas was obvious throughout. What an enormous reward to hear!

Isserlis has toured and recorded all five of these sonatas with Robert Levin on fortepiano. In his CD notes, he wrote: “Playing Beethoven fills me with a joy I find hard to describe. There is a strength to his music, a radiance of spirit, that is like nothing else. The late sonatas are of course the most profound and moving… but the world would be very much poorer without the earlier works, too. The might of Beethoven’s should permeate every note of all these works.”

After intermission, with the sky finally turning from dark blues to darkness, the duo delivered a luminous, seven-minute account of Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (1914), transcribed from the solo organ version (1911). This pleasing set also exists for several wind instruments.

Nadia Boulanger, teacher, conductor, early music pioneer and trusted adviser to the likes of Stravinsky and Poulenc, was also a gifted composer. Fiercely self-critical, she always claimed her own music was nothing like as significant as that of her brilliant younger sister, Lili, but with the rediscovery of Nadia’s music it has become clear that she was a remarkable talent in her own right. She entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine and subsequently studied composition with Fauré. Most of her music dates from between 1904 and 1918 (the year Lili died). Moderato in E-flat minor, presents a song-like melody on the cello over a hushed piano part marked doux et vague. After a brief climactic central section, the opening music returns for a serene close in E-flat major. Sans vitesse et à l’aise, in A minor, treats a deceptively simple tune – almost a folksong – in an ingenious canon between the cello and the piano. Vite et nerveusement rythmé, in C-sharp minor, is quick, with a middle section that provides a contrast in both rhythm and texture to the playful but muscular mood of the rest.       Nigel Simeone © 2022 

Isserlis fans know that he adores Fauré and features his works as often as possible. The 19-minute Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano in G Minor Op. 117 (1921) provided a great treat for those who know this composer only through his many beloved songs and his Requiem. So it was deeply gratifying to experience Isserlis’s sheer delight therein. Isserlis loves performing, and witnessing his apparent joy gave us almost as much pleasure as hearing his take on the composition he loves so dearly. Connie Shih sounded as luminous here as she did dramatic in the Beethoven. She is a musician’s musician. 

Finally the duo presented the Thomas Adés’s tour-de-force Lieux retrouvés (Rediscovered Places), co-commissioned for Isserlis by London’s Wigmore Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival, and Carnegie Hall. The work bears an interesting history. When Isserlis first looked at its nigh-impossible fourth movement, he told Adès it was too treacherous to play. Adès replied, most likely tongue in cheek, that’s okay, I’ll get someone else to premiere it. The ruse worked. Isserlis has (with great courage and steely nerves) carried it in his repertoire ever since. He had been booked to have done it in its orchestra version with the BSO and other orchestras when Covid set in. Curiously Lieux retrouvés, as played by Isserlis and the composer, shares a Hyperion CD with their recording of Faure’s Cello and Piano Sonata No. 2.

About this seriously impressive four-movement tour-de-force, Isserlis has written:

Lieux retrouvés—what can one say about this extraordinary work? Not only can Adès’s work as a whole not be categorized, even this piece cannot be pigeon-holed in any way. He takes influences from everywhere—from Offenbach, from jazz, from the French baroque, even from minimalism—and creates his own individual language within this one composition. The opening depicts the calm of still water—water that then muddies and swirls before again relaxing and expanding into a crashing wave. The second movement portrays mountaineers as well as mountains, their footsteps crunching on the paths. The movement functions as a scherzo, with a trio section representing particularly hardy climbers, yodelling as they trudge. I was a bit worried by the dramatic end of this movement, concerned that a mountaineer had fallen off the mountain; but I was reassured to learn that it represented merely the defiant planting of a flag. The slow movement takes us to a peaceful field at night, the animals at rest, their breath rising to heaven (rather riskily represented by the highest notes I’ve ever had to play lyrically). The finale is best described by its subtitle, Cancan macabre; all brilliant lights, flirtatious naughtiness and grotesque over-excitement. ‘A romp,’ as the composer innocently described it before he dared send me the music…

This work and its extraordinary performance swept this reviewer away, and I felt immense gratitude for the Bach encore which restored some calm after the maniacal and magical last movement.

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.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Wonderful pairing of two great performers. Not the most interesting Faure.
    The reviewer did not mention that Isserlis plays on gut strings, giving a less focused and richer/warmer sound than synthetic gut or metal strings. Balance was good the second half of the concert, perhaps half stick instead of full stick for the Beethoven sonatas would have been wise.
    Unfortunately the setting sun blinded those of us sitting in the East Balcony for the first 30 or so minutes of the concert, and several requests to close the shutters were met with an unqualified no, the reason given being that the audience complains when their view of the ocean is blocked. Starting concerts at 8:00 instead of 7:30 would fix the problem, keeping both those who came to hear and those who came for the view happy.

    Comment by Cecilia — July 2, 2024 at 1:13 pm

  2. Cecilia,

    Sorry about not mentioning Mr. Isserlis’s playing on gut strings. I should, I guess, have mentioned it but took for granted most people knew about this long-held custom of his. Again, sorry about this. omission.

    Comment by Susan Miron — July 2, 2024 at 4:20 pm

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