Cellist Steven Isserlis brings full-blooded bowing to Vancouver Recital Society
Steven Isserlis and Dénes Várjon
A Vancouver Recital Society presentation. At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, March 21. No remaining performances
You’d have to admire anyone who lists among his pet hates, as cellist Steven Isserlis did in this concert’s program, the music of Delius, most classical crossover, and music snobs—though I happen to like liver.
And I certainly like this English musician, who is a very, very distant relative of Felix Mendelssohn. (“But it’s nice to have him in the family tree.”) He is also among the favourite guests of the Vancouver Recital Society and returned March 21 to the Chan Centre with the Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon.
His cellistry is primo, his attitude always fresh, and he bodily throws himself into the music, producing phenomenally quick, articulate bowing and a full-blooded tone.
He played four cello sonatas, all in minor keys, and I was delighted that one of them was his own transcription of the No. 3 in A Minor, one of my favourite violin sonatas, partially written by Robert Schumann, and a late, composite effort by him, Johannes Brahms, and Albert Dietrich.
It lies perfectly for the cello and was a kind of reclamation of an old loss: years ago, Isserlis spoke angrily about Robert’s wife Clara Schumann’s destruction, out of embarrassment at their strangeness, of five late Romances for cello, works he’d written in the period when he was going insane. These works had to be intensely interesting and beautiful.
The A Minor is a lamenting sonata with deep chesty notes resonating from the cello’s baritone register and most interesting for the two parts written by Schumann. The cello brings a new expressive dimension that changes the music significantly from the thinner timbre that the violin gives it. The idea to rewrite it was inspired, and I hope Isserlis records it, because it’s amazing.
Hardly less beautiful is the Sonata in C Minor, Op. 6 by Samuel Barber, the first major American cello sonata, written in 1932. He brought an expression to it that I’ve never heard before. He even made me like Frédéric Chopin’s Sonata in G Minor, Op. 65.
And there was a rarity: Ernõ Dohnányi’s Sonata in B-Flat Minor, Op. 8—I didn’t even know he’d written one. This, too, was exquisite and with Várjon, as with everything else, played in a perfect partnership.