Vivid drama, expressive phrasing and spontaneity make a musical performance distinctive. Steven Isserlis displayed all these qualities in his recital Friday at the Library of Congress. The British cellist did so with a program that shunned repertorial favorites for an eclectic range of pieces drawn entirely from the 20th century.
Isserlis plays on gut strings, not for reasons of historical authenticity but for their special sound, and the Coolidge Auditorium is the ideal setting to hear them. In Shostakovich’s D minor cello sonata, Isserlis gave a soft sheen to the cantabile parts of the first movement, and an intense serenity to the slow movement. When the action got louder, as in the brutal comedy of the second movement and the Haydn-like danse funèbre of the finale, Canadian pianist Connie Shih, who was often too reticent, had to provide the lion’s share of the volume.
Bohuslav Martinů’s first cello sonata, also in D minor, felt like a twin for the Shostakovich piece, driven to a fast and furious ending in the parallel major. “Lieux retrouvés” was the most recent work of the evening, composed for Isserlis by Thomas Adès in 2009. It is, as Isserlis described it from the stage, an attempt to realize Proust-like descriptions of place in music. The performers captured especially the range of watery sounds in the first movement and the placid sense of pastoral stasis in the third.
Other composers on the second half, Isserlis explained, were selected because they were favorites of Adès. The gut strings again paid dividends in Reynaldo Hahn’s “Deux improvisations sur des airs irlandais,” sugary encore bonbons that were simply gorgeous, and the encore, an arrangement of Chopin’s Polish song “Nie ma czego trzeba” (sometimes known in English as “Faded and Vanished”). In that regard, the slow movement was the highlight of an otherwise rather busy second cello sonata by Fauré.