Concert Review: Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall

F and I got £5 tickets — if you’re under 35, check out the scheme — to see cellist Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London last week. I had seen Isserlis, a fellow Oberlin graduate, perform in the Oberlin Artist Recital Series back in 2008 or so. It remains one of the most memorable concerts I attended during my four years at Oberlin — and I went to a lot of concerts — so I jumped at the chance to see Isserlis perform again. Here is my review of his concert at Wigmore Hall.

Isserlis’ program at Wigmore Hall included three of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites — No. 1 in G major (BWV1007), No. 5 in C minor (BWV1011), and No. 4 in Eb major (BWV1010) — interspersed with Signs, Games and Messages — short, fragmentary pieces by 90-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 is probably the best-known of the cello suites, especially its characteristic Prelude. Isserlis opened the concert with this suite, although he played it a bit fast for my taste and it felt rushed. He followed this with two movements from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages before flowing directly into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Kurtág pieces were short, fun, and playful; they reminded me of Penderecki solo string pieces, such as the Divertimento for cello. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 is one of my favorites — I’m a sucker for C minor — and Isserlis gave a gorgeous and moving performance of it, drawing a rich tone from his cello’s gut strings and letting the music dance in the faster movements.

After the interval, Isserlis played three more short Kurtág pieces — one of which drew a laugh from the audience as Isserlis glanced up with his characteristic impish look — before transitioning immediately into Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. The audience was rapt by the time Isserlis got to the slow Sarabande, which he played with such feeling and emotional depth that even he seemed to tear up. The Sarabande’s gravity contrasted well with the playful last movement (Gigue).

Isserlis took three or four bows before settling down for an encore with another joyful movement from another Bach Cello Suites. Isserlis is a great performer to watch, as he so clearly feels the music and adapts his character to it without being distracting. He played all three Bach Cello Suites from memory and with such poise that the music seemed to flow out of him. He periodically glances at the audience with a half-smile, as if letting us in on a private joke.

It was a stunning concert. If you ever get the chance to see Isserlis play, do it. F said it’s the best classical music concert he has ever been to; his mind was sufficiently boggled. We talked about Bach’s genius: his music sounds so simple but is actually very difficult to play or sing (as I know well from recently tackling the Mass in B minor) and requires flawless technique and command.

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