University of Chicago Presents – Classical Music Program

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Program:

Bartók: First Rhapsody for Cello and Piano

Busoni: Kultaselle, Ten Short Variations on a Finnish Folksong

Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Op. 38

Liszt: Romance oubliée

Liszt: Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth (The Cloisters at Nonnewerth)

Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano in F Major, Op. 99

 

The acclaimed British cellist Steven Isserlis joined up with rising Russian (now an American citizen but teaching in Stuttgart) pianist Kirill Gerstein for a most intriguing program at the University of Chicago’s recently renovated Mandel Hall, highlighted by both of Brahms’ seminal sonatas for cello and piano.  It made for a most rewarding evening, on account of both the program (which at its best featured some of Brahms’ most exquisite chamber music, but grew a bit dreary at times) and, perhaps even more so, the superlative musicianship.

Before addressing the program directly, a word about the cello-playing may be fitting, as it was one of the most consistent delights of the concert.  Mr. Isserlis’ musicality and command of his instrument is breathtaking: his approach is basically restrained rather than impulsive; but, as is sadly not always the case, this did not preclude expressivity of a high order.  He manages to coax the most wonderful effects in color and dynamics from his instrument while perfectly maintaing a silken, singing tone; his playing is wonderfully vocal yet without the slightest rough edge – delicate in the very best sense of the word, and with dynamism in equal measure.  Mr. Gerstein provided an accompaniment to match, playing with assured sensitivity yet never overwhelming his partner.

Bartók’s First Rhapsody for Cello and Piano, thankfully, does not find the composer at his most excruciating, though it is not especially memorable either.  Very much a tonal work, its melodic idiom is folk-based but often with very dissonant harmonies, which are established in the accompaniment immediately by the piano’s opening; the performers emphasized the lyrical element and didn’t give it any more edge than it needed.  Ferruccio Busoni’s Variations on a Finish Folksong, which followed, is a somewhat gloomy piece at times, although there is some charm and variety among the ten variations – a program with two works by Brahms ideally needs something much sunnier to prevent the dark hue of Brahmsian melancholy from completely settling over the concert; I would say the same thing even more strongly of the two Liszt lieder arrangements that began the second half of the program, which did not have the benefit of variety of mood and came to feel a bit maudlin.

Yet there are few if any complaints to be made about the two Brahms sonatas, each of which closed a half of the program.  Each was written towards one end of Brahms’ career, and while generally his earlier works tend to have more sheer fire (even if harmonically their mood is essentially dark) and his later works less, these pieces strike something of a balance between the composer’s restrained and impassioned sides.  The first, Op. 38, was written over several years when Brahms (1833-1897) was about 30, and the first movement is quinessential early-ish Brahms: richly melodic, powerful but with a constant element of brooding.  Even if neither of the last two movements makes quite the impact that the first does, this is a wonderful piece; Mr. Isserlis and Mr. Gerstein gave a flowing performance that without being as overtly effusive or dramatic as some can be in Brahms did bring out the full emotional range of the music, particularly in the first movement; and they brought requisite energy to the finale.

The much later (1886) second sonata, Op. 99, is written in four movements instead of the usual three, and here each is a masterpiece; it received as excellent a performance as everything before it led one to expect.  Typically for Brahms, who didn’t seem to have much sense of humor, there is no true Scherzo movement.  What we have in place of a third-movement Scherzo here is something of an earnest intensity that could easily be mistaken for a dramatic finale; the finale that follows it is in fact much more lyrical, almost serene – in fact it is quite effective.  Yet I appreciated that this performance took special care to keep any sense of finality out of the third movement; its power was kept in check with a certain calculated sense of hesitation that actually made it feel more lighthearted, in the spirit of a conventional scherzo.  The well-deserved (for once) standing ovation led to an encore of an arrangement of a Schubert song, Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams) that was as throughout the evening served most beautifully by the cellist’s supremely songful playing.

In short, Brahms’ Op. 99 sonata was the highlight here, but the program was mostly enjoyable throughout; and Mr. Isserlis’ playing in particular was a constant source of delight in itself.  Do try to hear him live if the chance arises; he will make anyone love the cello.

 Highly Recommended

Samuel Wigutow

Date Reviewed: February 1, 2013

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