Russian Chamber Music 2: Steven Isserlis & Friends

String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.35 [for violin, viola and two cellos]
Romanza in E
Anton Rubinstein
Sonata No.1 in D for cello and piano, Op.18
Souvenir de Florence, Op.70

Alexander Pavlovsky (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) and Kyril Zlotnikov & Steven Isserlis (cellos) [Arensky]

Steven Isserlis (cello) & Kirill Gerstein (piano) [Glazunov & Rubinstein]

Joshua Bell & Alexander Pavlovsky (violins), Amihai Grosz & Beatrice Muthelet (violas) and Steven Isserlis & Kyril Zlotnikov (cellos) [Tchaikovsky]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 10 April, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerIn the course of his four-concert Wigmore Hall presentation of Russian chamber music, Steven Isserlis and friends are examining the fruits of no less than eighteen composers, from Glinka to Shostakovich.

Recital two drew a natural combination of works in Arensky’s two-cello string quartet and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir De Florence, Arensky’s central variations taking their lead from a Tchaikovsky song for children. The work made an immediate impression, the thoughtful, meditative Orthodox chant reverberating through the hall as it began. Cellists Steven Isserlis Kyril Zlotnikov sat centrally, ensuring their solemn intonations were fully projected. While the Variations were undoubtedly the structural centre of this performance, it was the chant and its reappearance toward the end that made the greatest impact. The quartet texture was rich with the extra lower voice, but thanks to Arensky’s sensitive treatment of the four instruments it rarely cloyed.

Isserlis has an aptitude for the Russian cello repertoire dating back to recordings of Cui and Glazunov, and in 1995 he recorded the First Cello Sonata of Anton Rubinstein with Stephen Hough. With Rubinstein’s pedigree it comes as no surprise to report that pianist Kirill Gerstein was taxed to the very limit by the composer-pianist’s virtuoso demands, but he was not found wanting. Indeed he did incredibly well to rise to the challenges, without walking all over Isserlis’s melodic lines. As a result the second movement’s barcarolle-like lilt was ideally delivered, together with its waspish central section, and both performers enjoyed the impish trick played by the composer at the end of the first movement. The finale, meanwhile, was a good-humoured gallop, the pianist scampering around the keyboard in triplets.

Balakirev’s youthful Romanza offered a bright note beforehand, Isserlis raising its profile well above that of student juvenilia with sensitive phrasing and ‘cantabile’ style. The cellist was in his element after the interval, when Joshua Bell joined for Souvenir de Florence. This was truly a performance to savour in its wit, lyricism and Romantic ideals, not to mention an extremely strong projection of Tchaikovsky’s abundance of good melodies. While the textures were sumptuous this was not an indulgent interpretation, and the fast movements fairly whizzed by – Isserlis blew out his cheeks at the accelerando conclusion to the first movement, driven hard by Bell. Within the scherzo was a trio that sounded like the rustling of wind in the trees as it hurried along, while the slower, unison tunes between Isserlis and Bell were clearly relished by both. This was the essence of chamber music – the players listening and responding to each other, enjoying the music as they made it.

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