Music Review: Hough, Isserlis pair


Hough, Isserlis pair for intense performance

Pam Dixon is a San Diego-based writer.

26-Apr-1999 Monday Stephen Hough | Steven Isserlis

To listen to cellist Steven Isserlis on CD is to know only half of what his playing is all about.

It’s not that his recordings are inferior. On the contrary, they’re terrific.

But unlike so many notoriously staid classical artists who play in a sort of elite bubble onstage, Isserlis has a highly personal quality in his playing that allows him to connect powerfully with others. His live music making is like the difference between a deeply felt sonnet written just for you, and a mass market novel.

As he performed a recital of Romantic-era sonatas with pianist Stephen Hough at Sherwood Auditorium Friday night, it was clear from the rapt atmosphere among the listeners that Isserlis’ magic did not go unheeded.

His concert was the final offering of the season for the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s Revelle Series. Over the past few years, executive director Neale Perl, a professionally trained cellist with a good ear for string musicians, has placed a number of striking cello players on the programs.

The one thing they all have in common — beyond that they are virtuosos of the first rank — is that there is always something completely out of the ordinary about their playing. In Isserlis’ case, his playing is profoundly his own, a difficult achievement in today’s competitive, crank-’em-out conservatory environment.

Because Isserlis’ playing is such a strong statement of who he is, he doesn’t interpret music in the traditional sense of putting crescendos in the right spot or perfecting the current politically correct phrasing for certain composers. For Isserlis, it’s about feeling the music and then communicating that to others, like a tree that is nourished and then produces a blossom.

As Isserlis walked onstage to perform the first piece, Mendelssohn’s sprightly Cello Sonata No. 2 in D Major, he carried a cello radiating the unmistakable cognac glow of a vintage Stradivarius. (Isserlis was recently loaned the 1730 Feuermann Strad.)

Isserlis’ tone has always been easy to listen to. But on the Strad, his tone was indescribably rich and beautiful. An approximation would be to characterize it as the sweetest honey, or as layer upon layer of golden warmth. Or better yet, as having the internal resonance of a Robert Browning poem.

The acoustic balance between the sensitive, clean-techniqued Hough and Isserlis took a movement or two to perfect. In the interim, some of the low notes of the cello got covered up. But what was still obvious was that this was no standard Mendelssohn.

The phrasing and the feel of the piece was free, unobstructed by interpretive artifice. It was as if Isserlis was simply playing from the heart, yet tempered with maturity and deep musical understanding. Phrases were disciplined, yet uttered volumes. Dramatic pianissimos and wispy phrase endings were organically knit into the fabric of the piece, not just added on for effect.

The same held true for a tender reading of Schubert’s songlike Sonata in A Minor for Cello and Piano, “Arpeggione.” Most notable was Isserlis’ use of vibrato. To create contrast, he played one phrase with little or no vibrato, using a matte sound. Then in the answering phrase, he added a glowing vibrato, making the exchange sound like a conversation between opposing feelings or characters in a play.

The two darkly romantic pieces that followed, Liszt’s “Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth” and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor for Piano and Cello, Op. 19, formed a yearning musical narrative particularly well suited to Isserlis’ approach. Hough was especially deft with the pedaling, creating stormy effects without getting in Isserlis’ way.

The duo ended the evening with Leiberman’s brooding “Elegy,” arranged by Hough.

Isserlis’ warm tone and unfettered interpretations give hints of his charisma in his recordings. But in person, his music goes further. It sinks deeply into the quiet parts of the mind, and lingers there alongside other
meaningful memories. further. It sinks deeply into the quiet parts of the mind, and lingers there alongside other meaningful memories.