Steven Isserlis & Kirill Gerstein at Wigmore Hall [Rachmaninov, Julius Isserlis & Mikhail Pletnev]

2 Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op.2
Julius Isserlis
Ballade for Cello and Piano
Sonata for Cello and Piano

Steven Isserlis (cello) & Kirill Gerstein (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 15 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerLate-Romanticism ran through this attractive BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from Steven Isserlis and Kirill Gerstein, culminating in the Cello Sonata of Mikhail Pletnev, written in 2006 after a chance meeting with Isserlis, the work’s dedicatee and who seems to have warmed to its lyrical potential, the writing characterised by long, fluid phrases in the slower music, while the second movement scherzo revealed a capricious nature, ranging in suggestion from Mendelssohn and Prokofiev.

Isserlis and Gerstein gave the premiere of the 30-minute Sonata in 2008, and here made an extremely good case for what is a substantial utterance that does not outstay its welcome. The first movement revealed Pletnev’s famously cool exterior, though Gerstein used the distinctive ‘ticking’ motif to generate real tension, growing into an episode of scurrying figures in the cello.

The scherzo danced rather like a puppet on a string, the cello swooping downwards with the trio’s first theme, growing eventually to a series of discords resolved only by the scherzo’s return, and the piano’s exaggerated ‘full stop’ at the end. However the emotional centre of the Sonata is its closing Adagio, Gerstein’s delicate accompaniment allowing the longer cello phrases to come through. What started as a lullaby, inhabiting an emotional world rather like that of Mahler’s Fourth symphony, grew to an anguished climax, after which Isserlis produced a magical morendo to finish with.

Kirill Gerstein. Photograph: Sasha GusovPletnev’s Sonata contrasted well with the programme’s opening shorter works. The first of Rachmaninov’s early Pieces, ‘Prelude’, found Isserlis in his element playing the warm, cantabile melodies, with Gerstein restrained and attentive in support. These qualities transferred well to the inflections of the appealing ‘Danse orientale’, tenderly played.

Isserlis then performed a Ballade written by his grandfather, Julius, and dedicated to Pablo Casals. While it seems the great cellist did not perform the work, he did however have some suggestions for its composition. It is an attractive, melodious piece, performed with flair and sensitivity here. The rich chromatic flavours of the opening, in 5/4 time, were delightful, the three contrasting themes strongly characterised.

After the sombre ending of the Pletnev, Isserlis ended the recital on a light-hearted note, dedicating the scherzo from Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata to (the present) Simon Callow on his 60th-birthday. The actor doubtless enjoyed the outrageous but tasteful portamento Isserlis inserted just before the end!

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