Steven Isserlis & Dénes Várjon

Weber arr. Crouch
Airs from Der Freischütz
Hummel
Variations, Op.54
Schubert
Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D821
Beethoven
Sonata in A for piano and cello, Op.69
Rossini
Une larme: thème et variations

Steven Isserlis (cello) & Dénes Várjon (piano)


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 May, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Stretching a point, this programme – built around Schubert’s sonata for arpeggione (a now-defunct bowed guitar) and Beethoven’s sonata – was billed as “Schubert’s Vienna” (part of Wigmore Hall’s “Schubert Festival”) but also included Airs from Weber’s “Der Freischütz” as transcribed by an amateur London cellist of yesteryear, one Mr Crouch, and Rossini’s display piece, Une larme, presumably written in Paris (since it dates from his old age). A degree of licence apart, this was an enterprising construct and the rarely-heard Hummel was an absolute knock-out.

If the Weber and Rossini were dispensable – elegantly though the Weber was played and spectacular though the Rossini – the three main works were all sufficiently substantial to create a satisfactory evening, and – more to the point – was the Beethoven not slightly diminished by the juxtaposition with Rossini’s showstopper?

Hummel’s Variations was a real ear-opener. Imagine a 19th-century prequel to Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody written for piano and cello. Once past the slightly archaic main theme, it makes huge demands on the pianist, a test that the excellent Dénes Várjon passed with flying colours and some awesomely stylish pianism (he has recorded for Naxos). This work is a real partnership of equals, a far cry from the world of solo cello and accompanist. Isserlis and Várjon found a pussyfooting deadpan wit in the quicker episodes as well as a quiet dignity in the one slow variation. The recurring cello refrain at the end of each section came round once too often but the whole thing was done with elegance and panache.

The sonata that Schubert wrote for the arpeggione was breathed into life with a wistful gentleness that had one momentarily thinking of Schumann, Isserlis producing a seamless legato and Várjon following every micro-fluctuation. This was like a conversation between two good friends. Best of all were the first two movements, the first movement’s fadeout was done with particular elegance and the slow movement with a concentrated stillness. The finale was almost too gemütlich (if that is possible in Schubert), the whole movement so con amore that one felt it was being viewed through rose-coloured spectacles.

A similar degree of affection was evident in the Beethoven which was also breathed ever-so-gently into life and continued on into an Allegro which could have erupted more sternly and maintained its impetus more implacably. Isserlis tended to linger over detail as though emotion was being recollected in tranquillity. The scherzo however was picaresque in exactly the right way with Várjon injecting a volcanic vigour to the piano part. (Notable throughout the evening was the pianist’s ability to find exactly the right tone of voice for three very different composers, glittering and soloistic in the Hummel, amiable and collegiate in the Schubert and full of masculine vigour in the Beethoven.)

The last word was rightly left to Schubert, a straight transcription of his great song “Nacht und Träume”, elegantly played by Isserlis on Feuermann’s 1730 Stradivarius.

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