This recital was the stuff of legend. It began late morning and finished early evening, an odyssey through all the works Beethoven wrote for keyboard and cello, played by the dream team, on dream instruments, in the dream venue. Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis are at the top of their games professionally, which is what Beethoven's music requires. It was written for fortepiano and cello, an equal status not accorded until Beethoven's middle period. It is all too rare to have two star soloists whose synchronicity of musical feeling and style is complete.
Isserlis was playing the exquisite 18th-century De Munck Stradivarius, while Levin played Christopher Barlow's marvellous copy of an 1826 Graf fortepiano. True, the keyboard had difficulties with tuning and clanking, but with four pedals its colours are as wide as a rainbow and dynamic range astonishing, and for this music infinitely preferable to an overbearing modern Steinway. Normally, players of these "antique" instruments treat them with kid gloves, but Levin let it have it with no concession to frailty. Isserlis, too, gave the Strad a work-over - at times I feared both instruments might disintegrate.
The day began with Beethoven's sets of variations, fascinating homages from one composer to another. Wisely, all repeats were omitted. But repeats were taken in all the sonatas, played chronologically. These works perfectly chart Beethoven's compositional progress with two early works, two late and the great middle-period A major Op 69. But already in Beethoven's first sonata, weirdness appears - a floating introduction without meter; stationary open fifths. In the G minor sonata Op 5, the pregnant pauses in the introduction build an incredible tension that is in no way relieved by the succeeding dramatic allegro. Levin and Isserlis drew sparks from each other but there was never a moment that escaped control.
Could Op 69 have been more beautifully played and Op 102 more miraculously understood? Here was Isserlis displaying to the utmost Beethoven's astonishing contrasts. He knows exactly what to do using vibrato only as a colour, his bow fast and light then digging terrifyingly into the string. The Isserlis sound is heart-stopping - this great Strad is in the right hands. Watch out for the BBC broadcasts - and, God willing, the CDs.Reuse content