Brilliant Playing At the Edge of Schumann's Sanity

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006

One tends to be a little suspicious of chamber music concerts by ultra-celebrated artists. Leaders are not usually good followers, and chamber music demands both.

The late Jascha Heifetz, for example, tended to turn anything he played into fiddle fireworks; his recording of the great Schubert Cello Quintet sounds like nothing so much as a disappointed violin concerto. And there are many similar examples.

So it is a pleasure to report that violinist Joshua Bell -- one of the few superstars capable of selling out virtually any auditorium in which he appears -- not only proved himself a brilliant and generous colleague at the Library of Congress on Friday night, but also played with more passion, originality and (if one is still permitted to use this phrase, post-Monty Python) derring-do than I've ever heard from him.

This was one of the great concerts of the season -- of any season during my 10 years in Washington -- and it is a little unfair for me to start with Bell, since the concert was rightly titled "Steven Isserlis and Friends," and it was cellist Isserlis who was the guiding spirit behind the evening. Everything was right: the small size of Coolidge Auditorium ( so much more appropriate for this repertoire than a vast space such as the Kennedy Center Concert Hall); the ratio of familiar to unfamiliar in the pieces selected; the fervency, delight and wildness with which the music was played.

The concert was devoted entirely to music by Robert Schumann, one of the great figures of the early romantic period but a composer whose reputation rests on a relatively small number of pieces. Schumann suffered from syphilis (an illness that wreaked as much havoc on the creative arts in the 19th century as AIDS did in the 20th), and by the time he wrote two of the works on Friday's program -- the Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op. 102, for cello and piano and the Three Romances, Op. 94 for violin and piano -- he was already showing distinct signs of madness.

These are certainly eccentric pieces. If I hadn't been told otherwise, I might have guessed that the first of the "Folk Style" pieces, with its determined simplicity of utterance and sharply accented rhythms, might have been by Bela Bartok. A pedant could point to many flaws of construction -- many pedants already have -- and it must be admitted that most of these works go on rather longer than their basic material naturally supports. Yet, once one has sifted and appreciated, they are still something very special -- music of the heart, all the more touching for the human weakness.

Isserlis is a marvelous cellist, bursting with ideas and energy, with the inexplicable ability to somehow suggest the sound of a pipe organ in sustained contrapuntal passages. Jeremy Denk, the only musician who played in every piece (the program also featured the Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 63, and the evening's one warhorse, the Piano Quartet, Op. 47) was equally adept and exhilarated, while violist Paul Neubauer played with his usual patrician elegance.

At no point did one have the feeling that this was merely "business as usual" for any of the musicians. Instead, one had that rare and thrilling sense that the music, although obviously meticulously rehearsed, was being discovered, explored, caressed and exalted as though it were all brand-new.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company