Steven Isserlis in Brisbane

It’s been a bumper year for me so far, concert-wise.  First the Goldner Quartet which I had longed to hear, live, for so long and then – joy of joys – English cellist Steven Isserlis.  Though to label him merely “English” is misleading because he is a truly international musician if ever there was one.

If Steven Isserlis was a musical instrument he would BE a cello!  I have never thought that Yehudi Menuhin looked like a violin or Roger Woodward like a piano.  Though I HAVE known a couple of rather tubby tuba players!

But Isserlis is marvellously at one with his instrument in a purely physical as well as a musical sense.  Rangy, elegantly framed, serious of mien yet, like the cello itself, capable of unexpected bursts of wit and humour.  Isserlis once said in an interview that classical music was not meant to be serious and yet of course it often IS and certainly he looks very serious when playing it.  And then that delightful smile breaks out and you are not surprised that he is the author of some light-hearted childrens’ books and stories with titles like Why Handel Waggled His Wig and Goldipegs and the Three Cellos.

Like most musicians and composers since Mozart Isserlis is a humanitarian but while those of earlier times were content to express their ideals through music Isserlis is of the modern kind who goes in for affirmative action.  Mostly, in his case, through education – especially of the young .  And it is there in the type of music he chooses to play, which makes him the perfect interpreter of the “new” music he embraces and promotes.

If you have ever heard him play Tavener’s The Protecting Veil you’ll know what I mean – and if you haven’t, your musical education has been sadly neglected and you need to go and buy a CD of it NOW!

The MusicaViva concert in Brisbane on June 10, where Isserlis was teamed with spirited Canadian pianist Connie Shih,  offered us, as one would expect, thrilling bit of “new” music – Lieux Retrouvés by contemporary composer Thomas Adès.  This is sonata in form, in four parts, and the real thrill comes at the end – which taxes even so supreme a cello maestro as Isserlis..  It was rather like watching a trapeze artist, half hoping yet fearing the fall! Of course a musician of Isserlis’ calibre and at the peak of his skills doesn’t fall – not in front of an audience at least.  But it must have taken hours and hours of practice to get all that tricky bowing just right.  To be honest I didn’t like it that much, though I’m not sure one is supposed to “like it”;  however I could appreciate the composer’s innovation and its challenge to technique – it certainly does stretch the boundaries.  The first movement, Eaux was indeed watery in sound – especially the piano parts – and also traditionally melodic. This proved to be a bit sneaky on the composer’s part because soon enough, as Isserlis himself described it, those clear waters become muddied.  The next movement, Montagne, is strange indeed.  Don’t think soaring peaks, think great big mountaineers in clumping boots –or so Isserlis interprets it for us, acting on information from his friend Adès.  Then the third bit, Champs, goes back to the countryside – not nature in the raw but peaceful pastureland.  Here the cellist must take his bow to astonishing heights until the last note fades into the most delicate of sighs.  After this, the astonishing fourth movement comes as an astonishing shock, bounding into the consciousness of the audience like a large, unruly, slobbering and possibly savage dog! Though in factI think it is supposed to represent the insane hurly-burly of city life when contrasted with the peace of the countryside.

I have now played this sonata several times (it’s on YouTube) and I think I’m beginning to get it.   Mind you, Adès wrote this piece especially for Steven Isserlis and they first performed it together (the composer being a talented pianist also).  It does make one question the nature of their friendship – was Adès trying to give his good mate a great gift or was he actually trying to drive him mad! I can just see what Pablo Casals would have said if any friend of his had given him such a “gift”!

The rest of the program was sheer delight – three cello/piano favourites. Sainte Saens’ no 1 in C minor, Fauré’s no. 2 in G minor and  – following the interval and ending the evening – Franck’s A major.  In summary:

Saint Saens – Isserlis and Shih gave us all the power and the passion the first movement requires.  The second movement always seems to me as if the composer is using the players to say different things with the cello at its darkest and the piano sparkling away; yet somehow it comes together in a glorious conversation.  Like two lovers with very different personalities gradually finding common ground.  In the third movement they are instrumentally as one and it all ends splendidly

Fauré – a gentle contrast and oh so romantic and joyous in its first movement.  The second movement is elegantly elegiac – a word too much used to describe slow movements but I can’t think of a better on in this case. I love it, but then like most people I love slow movements.  Funny how we say we long for happiness and yet so enjoy a good cry!  While listening to the third movement I became aware of Isserlis’ cello which has a voice of great dignity and experience.  I would love to know more of its history – all I do know is that it’s a Stradivarius and of course very valuable.

Franck – what is there to say about this great sonata which has been so praised by those far more musically expert than I!  It is magnificent!  We are always told that this is a deeply spiritual piece, yet to me it speaks more of romantic yearning and – yes – sexual unfulfillment.  A lament for what might have been.

It was a great privilege to hear and see Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih perform together for they are mesmerising to watch besides making wonderful music.  I’m not going to bother to try and dredge up more adjectives to describe their playing during this 2015 MusicaViva Australian tour – it all sounds so trite and banal.  If you weren’t lucky enough to be at one of their concerts then all I can say is that my heart bleeds for you – because for me it was wonderful beyond words.




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