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Choral and Vocal
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CHAMBER REVIEW
Chamber Music in Napa Valley / Tuesday, February 14, 2023
Steven Isserlis, cello; Connie Shih, piano

Shih-Isserlis Feb. 14 (J. McNeill Photo)

EXALTED ISSERLIS VALENTINES DAY GIFT IN STELLAR NAPA RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, February 14, 2023

There were no real surprises in cellist Steven Isserlis’ Napa recital on Valentine Day, and perhaps none was expected. After all, he is among the elite of the world’s cellists, and in the crescent-shaped First United Methodist Church the full-house audience knew well the elevated musical experience they were to have.

Produced in Chamber Music in Napa Valley’s 42nd season, the recital did have one unique aspect - the concluding work was not a familiar demanding virtuoso sonata, but a sonata of Ignaz Moscheles. Moscheles, the composer of piano works reminiscent of Mendelssohn, Hummel, Kalkbrenner and Dussek, wrote several cello sonatas, and Mr. Isserlis chose the second, the Op. 121 work from 1850.

Over 30 minutes the unfamiliar music unfolded, and I kept listening for some bit of Weber or Schumann, but only in the Allegro Vivace finale did a hint of Mendelssohn appear. In the opening many themes emerged under a light bow and skittish fast scales from pianist Connie Shih. The Scherzo was full of spicy effects with dissonances in the piano line and many sforzandos.

A lovely bucolic melody, almost a slow waltz, came with the third movement, but the ersatz love song shortly became unruly under the cellist’s driving rhythm, and then a rough march was heard, unconventional and highlighted by Mr. Isserlis’ perfect intonation and subtle fades at phrase endings.

The last movement was a tour de force - so many thematic ideas were on display and the duo made a celebratory rush to the ending. It was a fresh and charming performance of a work that Mr. Isserlis discovered from the distant past.

It was a recital’s highlight, but not by that much. Ending the first half was a dramatic performance of the Brahms E Minor Sonata, Op. 38, where the cellist’s big low register sound and wide vibrato were heard. Ms. Shih and Mr. Isserlis built many climaxes with controlled diminuendos and crescendos, both musicians in constant body movements. The second theme in the opening Allegro had majesty, and Ms. Shih’s piano tone was lovely.

Ritards never broke the line in the second movement, and the harmonic modulations were played with a natural instrumental ease, especially in the slow “questioning” second theme. The sound was pushed in the finale as the piano line sporadically covered the cello, but it’s that kind of piece – sharp contrasts, fugal phrases, an exciting accelerando at the end. The audience erupted with an ovation.

Bach’s long line phrases characterized the recital’s opening Gamba Sonata No. 1 (BWV 1027), with Ms. Shih’s heavily pedaled part and romantic phrase shaping made me wish for a harpsichord. However, it was convincing throughout with Mr. Isserlis’ bow flying through short musical thrusts in the upper register where Allegro bordered on Presto.

Lesser works in the program? In a way yes, with a stylish Boccherini C Minor Sonata performance of plaintive long phrases, expressive trills and phrase repeats played differently a welcome delight. Mr. Isserlis is a master of slightly-off pitch notes that catch the ear’s attention.

Mendelssohn’s D Major Variations (8, in Op. 17) an afterthought? Of course not, and its light lyrical virtuosity was a perfect alternative to the potent Brahms and Moscheles. Mr. Isserlis’ tonal control in the rollicking fast tempo of the 5th Variation played off the prominent piano line and it was a fast musical ride, with a bantamweight ending, that brought the audience to its feet again in prolonged applause.

Clearly following the Moscheles an encore was to be demanded, with expectation of the Glazunov transcription of Chopin's Op. 25 No. 6 Study (Cello) or St. Saëns The Swan. The duo knew just the right work, a four-minute Mendelssohn Song Without Words, the lyrical D Major one from Op. 109. In an odd way it was underplayed, the piano part in the background, the tempo never pliant, light vibrato, creamy sound, ardent but not sentimental, and a captivating upward ending phrase with a long fermata.

The audience went wild, and me too. It was one of the finest cello recitals I have ever heard, a Valentine’s Day gift from a great artist.