A simply sublime and masterful display of the Belle Époque’s finest sonatas.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
13 June, 2015

Charismatic British cello virtuoso Steven Isserlis and Chinese-Canadian pianist Connie Shih delivered a delicious afternoon of Francophilia at the City Recital Hall, Angel Place, with a trio of the Belle Époque’s finest sonatas, plus a salute to French impressionism, albeit reimagined through his unique and considerable gifts, by arguably the most celebrated composer of our generation, Thomas Adès.

This programme of Gallic favourites, the latest offering in Musica Viva’s bumper year of international artists in celebration of the organisation’s 70th anniversary, opened with Saint-Saen’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor. Isserlis has a masterful flexibility of tone, moving from a rich, woody, mellifluous warmth to crisp, reedy, biting attacks. Hand picked by Isserlis himself, Shih is a pianist of rare talent. With his shock of curly white locks, ala Sir Simon, and his passionate, unrestrained physicality, it would be easy for a chamber music partner of Isserlis’ to be overshadowed, but Shih easily kept pace with some impressively committed, yet impeccably controlled playing. Even in the incredibly knotty counterpoint of this Sonata’s third movement, Shih displayed an agile effortlessness while maintaining an excellently judged balance.

These two astonishingly talented musicians share a palpable empathy for one another, and were able to deliver some daringly soft, delicate playing, before stepping on the gas for the grandiloquence of Saint-Sean’s strident, explosive climax.

Iserliss’ ability to extract a kaleidoscopic variety of colours was again put to stunning use in Faure’s rhapsodic Cello Sonata No 2 in G minor. The illustrious cellist is a highly creative interpreter, judiciously exploiting his sonorous, beautifully rich, honeyed timbre before allowing the texture to evaporate, sylphlike, to a hushed, delicately refined wisp of sound that had us on the edge of our seats, craning to hear. It’s a bold gamble to push the dynamic limits of a performance to such extreme levels in a hall as substantial as Angel Place, but the breath-stealing result was a perfectly still moment of intimacy.

Despite the close aesthetic tradition of the programme, Isserlis and Shih have worked hard to extract uniquely characterful renderings of this French repertoire, highlighting the idiosyncratic differences in each composer’s music. Such savvy insight is truly pleasing to experience, particularly from music as well known as the Saint-Sean and Faure.

The concert’s wild card was Thomas Adès Proust-inspired Lieux retrouvés, which while residing in an undoubtedly accessible musical terrain, is still a challenging piece for both performer and listener. Written especially for Isserlis in 2009, this piece is evocative of an idyllic, pastoral, presumably European landscape of mountains, lakes and fields, before concluding with a debaucherously excessive Can-Can. Adès is merciless in the technical demands he makes on both musicians, and it was here, on a few occasions that the ferocious intensity of the music left Isserlis and Shih hanging on by their finger-tips. Nonetheless this is music that is deeply rewarding, particularly in the ethereal beauty of the stratospheric third movement.

To conclude the performance Isserlis and Shih offered the tranquil, meditative calm of Frank’s Cello Sonata, taken from the Violin Sonata in A Major. Experiencing music making delivered so powerfully by such accomplished musicians is nothing less than thrilling, and this was as perfect an account of this work as I have ever heard. Simply sublime. 

Musica Viva present Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih, on tour until June 20.