Isserlis/Adès, Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 09 December 2008
Even in a hall as famed for its intimacy as the Wigmore, I doubt we've ever heard quieter or more meaningful sounds than Steven Isserlis breathed into his cello during the last of four Gyorgy Kurtag pieces, Kroo Gyorgy in memoriam. Descending scales so ghostly that it hardly seemed possible that the strings were even so much as grazed by the bow became like silent footsteps to eternity. How typical of Kurtag to honour a great Hungarian musicologist with near-silence – the most elusive music of all – and how clever of Isserlis to have placed these pieces at the heart, the still centre, of this generous recital.
But Isserlis's highly personal connection with Kurtag's intense "reductions" says so much about a cellist who invests so much in the music between the notes, and it came as no surprise to me that he should have hooked up with the composer Thomas Adès as a recital partner. Beginning rather bravely with the Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor, it was interesting watching and hearing Adès throw down the chordal gauntlet of the opening only to have Isserlis transform the material into something rapt and highly personal. You could almost see Adès enjoying the composer's sleight of hand.
It was quite the reverse in Janacek's Pohadka, where the piano's lyric flights were initially rather baldly punctuated by the cello. Both players caught the very particular "accent" of this piece with the final release in cello against ostinato piano achieving a fleeting moment of ecstasy.
So, a singing alliance of two like-minded musicians, of which one imagines we'll be seeing a lot more. In Gabriel Fauré's Cello Sonata No 2, the central funeral oration (originally conceived as a commemoration for Napoleon) found both players in perfect accord. How proudly this melody sits in the middle of the cello's voice, and how hypnotically it seemed to levitate in the muted reprise.
But the star turn was undoubtedly Francis Poulenc's Cello Sonata. No other composer can juxtapose the capricious and the sublime like he does, and the relish with which Isserlis and Adès negotiated his delicious volte-faces made surprises out of even what we knew was coming: like the cello's grandiloquent chordal flourishes that descend into Doctor Who harmonics at the start of the finale. But it was the slow movement that proved so dreamily cherishable, with Adès shaping its luxuriant chords like he himself had dreamed them up.
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