92nd St. Y Sunday, January 27th 2013 Steven Isserlis, cello Kirill Gerstein, piano Liszt: Romance Oubliée Die Zelle in Nonnenwirth Busoni: Kultaselle, variations on a Finnish folksong Brahms: Sonata no. 1 in E minor, op. 38 Béla Bártok: Rhapsody for Cello and Piano Brahms: Sonata no. 2 in F minor, op.99
The extraordinary musical scene of New York owes its fame, and justly so, to Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, but it would lose a lot if it weren’t for the 92nd St. Y, a splendid institution which brings us the very best in chamber music and an array of artists who do appear at the other venues, but who never fail to come to the more intimate setting of the Y and seem to thrive there. The Laredo-Robinson-Kalichstein trio lead the way, the Tokyo quartet is also a regular, Paul Lewis plays entire cycles there, and so does, to the delight of all those fascinated by the cello, Steven Isserlis.
Last year, he came and gave us the complete Beethoven sonatas, in three installments, including a special recital for children, with forte-pianist Robert Levin.
It was a pleasure not only to hear them play, but also to hear what they had to say about the works, although I would maybe have wished for deeper insights – but then, my approach to the cello is not only that of a listener. In any case, Isserlis is a master cellist, talented and accomplished, apart from being a very nice person who completely charmed my granddaughters who became fans of the cello and of Isserlis himself.
This time, the main course was Brahms – both cello sonatas, a tour de force. Around them, two Liszt works (you know Liszt and Wagner are on my black list, but here I must confess I was quite taken), Busoni variations and a Bartók rhapsody.
So I settled down, with my companion Oboe d’Amore, in seats with an excellent view, all geared up for the ultra romantic cello works of Franz Liszt. And I almost fell off that excellent seat when I heard wild rhythms and sharp dissonances which could never, ever have come out of Liszt’s imagination and quill. It was obviously the Bartók, which I didn’t know and will certainly give a second listening to very soon, as once I had gotten over my surprise, I was drawn into the beautiful rhapsody, magnificently played by both performers. Isserlis I’ve known for quite a while, but this was the first time I heard Kirill Gerstein, a very interesting and original pianist , as the Brahms would later reveal. Reading his biography, you can better understand his personality – he played a lot of jazz and studied under Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid, most probably at the Escuela Reina Sofia (that is my guess), a prodigious school that has helped hone the talents of the likes of the Casals Quartet, cellists Asier Polo and Sol Gabetta, pianists Eldar Nebolsin and Arkadi Volodos, violinist Vadim Repin, to name a few stars, and now, I suspect, Kirill Gerstein.
The Bartók was followed by the Busoni, also new to me, much more in the Romantic mood, lovely but not quite as riveting as the Bartók. And still, no word from the performers, as if they expected the audience to make the correction and move on.
And move on we did, as the next piece was unmistakably Brahms’ first cello sonata, in E minor, which I now consider my sonata – I am studying it under the expert guidance of my wonderful teacher Wanda Glowacka, always so ambitious for me, I do hope her confidence is contagious… I was all ears, hoping to understand some of the mysteries of playing Brahms. I knew what I wanted to hear. This sonata’s moods are as diverse as its three movements. The first movement is soft and grave, the second, minuet, is graceful and playful, as in scherzo, and the third is fiery and powerful. The second sonata, in F major, which we would hear in the second half of the program, is altogether more intense, even in the slow lyrical second movement. The sonatas were written almost thirty years apart, the E minor being a still young Brahms and the F major a mature composer.
Now, did I hear what I wanted? In part I did. Isserlis, as I said before, is a thoroughly engaging musician, talented and expressive. But I did expect more from him. The first movement was almost perfect, but he did not get as much out of the C string as I would have liked. Especially with the cello he plays, he should really have a deeper and more melodic bass. I found his tone throughout the recital a little too muffled but that might have been due to the hall itself and its extensive wood panelling. Musically, nevertheless, there were marvelous insights and moments. The minuet was grace itself. Again, I would have liked to hear the cello speak out more powerfully in the extraordinary unisons with the piano in the last movement, but there was far more piano than cello there – luckily, it was Gerstein’s superb piano.
After the intermission, Isserlis finally acknowledged that the program had inverted the order of the pieces and that when he started, he had no idea the audience was expecting Liszt and not Bartók. He apologized profusely, but I quite agree that the order they played in was better suited to each of the Brahms sonatas than the order announced in the Playbill. The very intense F major sonata would have clashed with Bartók, I think. The lovely (yes, truly, I’m not being sarcastic!) Liszt romances set the mood for the tense F major much better than the more agitated pieces would have, and the Bartók and Busoni were in beautiful contrast with the E minor sonata.
Speaking of tension, that is also something I noticed in Isserlis’s playing. There was something overwound about it, maybe the result of the breakneck speed he took in some movements, especially in the third of the first sonata. He really scared me there, as I thought cello and piano would soon part company (the first few bars were indeed out of focus). But no, they kept together, although some of the gorgeous themes were lost in the race.
So, after having deconstructed Isserlis, let me hasten to say that I would never miss a recital or concert of his which came my way, as he is an extremely exciting and absorbing musician. There are not so many who dare what he dares, and who play so beautifully in the process. He might not have enlightened me as much as I wanted to be about the Brahms works, but he did, with Kirill Gerstein, give us a splendid Sunday afternoon of music, including a Schubert song as an encore, the title of which I’m sorry to say I missed.