Cellist Makes Hard-to-Play Music Hard To Overlook

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cellist Steven Isserlis strengthened his reputation for championing overlooked repertoire in a concert Friday night with pianist Connie Shih at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

A musical fairy tale by Janacek, a suspenseful sonata by Martinu and a fractured violin work by Schumann (arranged for cello by Isserlis), made for a satisfying evening of eye-openers.

Making a case for Schumann's A Minor Violin Sonata, from 1853, would seem problematic, given its checkered past. Movements were lost or written for other projects, and weren't published together until 100 years later. This was Schumann's last major work. He was struggling for sanity, which is audible in a tug-of-war between muttered fragments of melody and brash pronouncements and in a lonesome intermezzo lovingly phrased by Isserlis. His devotion to this difficult, slightly schizoid music is affecting, but few cellists will dare play his arrangement.

Few also play Janacek's "Pohadka." Only 13 minutes long, it's packed with the story elements of a three-hour opera: prince, maiden, villain, love potion. Janacek's concentrated sound world spins from prickly to Puccini in a bow stroke. Isserlis injected personality into each twisted run and soaring melody.

Martinu's Sonata No. 1 is, by contrast, dark and acerbic. Isserlis and Shih emphasized its pulsating rhythms and urgency right up to the final, chugging bars, which felt like a locomotive screeching to a halt.

Isserlis's sound wasn't big or resonant. Instead, his 1730 Stradivarius delivered a subtler tone, expressive in soft dynamics and diverse colors. Shih proved a terrific, imaginative partner, with enough lightness, speed and power to match Isserlis's mercurial spirit.

-- Tom Huizenga

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