Steven Isserlis regards J. S. Bach's Cello Suites as “the Everest to be conquered by every cellist.” At Wigmore Hall, in the first of two recitals, he paired three Bach Suites with music by György Kurtág (who turns 90 on Friday February 19). In many ways the latter appears to be the antithesis of Bach's arching, soul-searching explorations in dance form; Kurtág's pieces from Signs, Games and Messages are intense, resonant and very brief.
Isserlis suggests a spiritual narrative for the Six Suites, using Biber's Mystery Sonatas as his guide, which tell the life of Christ in abstract music. Isserlis has divided Bach's Suites into three sets of two: joyful, sorrowful and glorious, “a complete and radiant traversal from the Nativity to the Resurrection.”
The evening opened with the First Cello Suite, denoted as 'joyful'. The prevailing mood was interior, contemplative, devotional. As he moved from the 'Prelude' to the dances, Isserlis took us with him on a journey from the external to the internal – to the centre of the music and to ourselves. Two pieces by Kurtág followed seamlessly. ‘Hommage à John Cage’ (1987) and ‘Pilinszky János: Gérard de Nerval’ (1984). Joyful and Sorrowful in miniature. Bach's Fifth Cello Suite followed, the “Sorrowful Mystery of the Crucifixion”, darkly dramatic, the core of the concert.
‘Jelek 1’ and ‘Jelek 2’ (1987) opened the second half in assertive fashion, then ‘Az hit ...’ (1998). Isserlis has been working closely with Kurtág and he composed a piece for the cellist after the death of his wife. The sadness of loss was present in Isserlis's playing of Suite No.4, and brought a sense of greater space and questioning to its airy arpeggios. The encore, the ‘Prelude’ from the C-major Third Suite, gave a hint of something else: an elated resolution? It brought the house down.
Steven Isserlis never does the obvious. This was a performance on the edge: deeply thoughtful and personal, and profoundly human.