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Dedicated to a Russian Master

May 8, 2007

Although Steven Isserlis had decided on his program long before hearing the sad news of Mstislav Rostropovich's death on April 27, his recital at Herbst Theatre on Thursday, which consisted entirely of Russian music for cello and piano, turned out to be a poignant and fitting homage to the great cellist and humanitarian. Isserlis had last been in town four years ago for performances with the San Francisco Symphony of Benjamin Britten's Cello Symphony, one of the many important 20th-century works written for and dedicated to Rostropovich.
Since Rostropovich was the conductor for those gripping performances, they offered a fascinating and rare glimpse of the collaboration between the two quite different, but equally exciting musical personalities. Isserlis kept a diary of the experience, excerpts of which were published earlier this year in Gramophone Magazine as part of a birthday tribute to the man known affectionately to audiences as Slava.

Isserlis shares the virgorous enthusiasm, imagination, and passion that Slava always brought to his performances, but the British cellist works with a rather different palette of tonal colors. While Rostropovich was among the first to champion the use of high-tension steel strings (a prominent luthier once told me that the deck of Slava's Strad required extra reinforcements to withstand the pressure), Isserlis is one of the few cellists who has persisted in using gut strings in his performances of the modern concert repertoire. Although each performer's choice of hardware results in some striking differences in fundamental tone color, the most important distinctions between the two cellists are a matter of musical personality and taste. As Lance Armstrong put it in the title of his autobiography, "It's not about the bike."

While Slava excelled at projecting a larger-than-life, heroic quality, often exuberantly reveling in the sheer power of the sound he was able to draw from his instrument, Isserlis' strength lies in the incredible variety of colors and articulation that he employs as he shapes a line, ranging from nonvibrato, shimmering pianissimos to a full-throated, operatic cantabile.
In Tune With Mother Russia
The Shostakovich on the program, his early Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40, was published in 1934, when Rostropovich was 7 years old. Shostakovich was later one of Rostropovich's composition teachers at the Moscow Conservatory, and throughout his career, Slava remained a dedicated and enthusiastic champion of his mentor's music. One of the most compelling performances of the Cello Sonata is to be found on Rostropovich's 1958 recording, with the composer at the piano. Equally at home with this music are pianist Kirill Gerstein and Isserlis, whose English accent belies his Russian musical heritage (one of his grandfathers was a gifted Russian concert pianist).

The cello statement of the lyrical first theme was captivating from the outset, and when the piano took over to introduce the second theme, Gerstein stepped into the spotlight with aplomb. Gerstein is a fine pianist, with impeccable control, but the decision to leave the piano lid all the way open resulted in balance problems in some of the more forceful passages.

The dry acoustics of Herbst — particularly unfriendly to string instruments — are partly to blame. Isserlis often had to visibly strain in order to be heard, particularly in the scherzo, which made for a too-serious quality in this playful movement. Nonetheless, the two gave an engaging performance. I have never heard more eloquent playing of the quasi-recitative that opens the third movement. And the quicksilver twists and turns of the finale were navigated with an uncanny mixture of wit and grace.

Although Anton Rubinstein's D-Major Cello Sonata, Op. 18, is rarely played today, it was one of the most successful concert pieces in its day. Isserlis has made a mission of championing such neglected works from the 19th century, and in the process has often turned up some gems, but even he had to admit that there are good reasons Rubinstein's sonata has fallen out of fashion. It is a technically demanding piece, and the musical substance simply isn't sufficient to justify the work necessary to pull it off — at least for most musicians.

To be sure, the piece has some charming moments, especially in the lyrical second movement. It is based on a lovely sicilienne melody that evolves into some brilliantly shimmering textures spun from virtuosic passagework, which the performers tossed off with seemingly effortless panache. Although Isserlis and Gerstein made a strong case for the work, as a whole the piece was like one of those well-produced Hollywood movies with too many endless car-chase scenes.

Alexander Glazunov's Two Pieces, Op 20, aren't exactly hidden gems either, but they are appealingly light baubles. Composed while the composer was still in his early 20s, and originally conceived for cello and orchestra, they are well-crafted lyrical movements, the second of which, the Sérénade espagnole, is reminiscent of Manuel da Falla's arrangements of Spanish folk songs.
A Reverie in Prokofiev
The high point of the evening came at the end, with Sergei Prokofiev's C-Major Sonata, Op. 119, written for Rostropovich in 1949. The playing was of such a high standard that it was easy to lose yourself in the flow from one idea to another — from the brooding and rhapsodic first theme, which centers on a wonderfully idiomatic baritone phrase played on the cello's lowest strings, to the return of the opening idea in the ecstatic close of the final movement.

The second movement, which begins with a section full of playful childlike tunes, appears at first glance to be cast as a conventional scherzo and trio. But in place of the trio, Prokofiev offers a surprisingly sincere and lyrical slow waltz that serves a dual purpose as a substitute for the traditional sonata's slow movement. Isserlis captured the ironic, gently mocking quality of the opening section brilliantly, and the warmth of his sound and adept shaping of phrases in the waltz were mesmerizing. A lyrical quality returns for the bulk of the final movement, which courses along amicably before building to the climactic return of the first movement's opening idea.

After the raucous conclusion of the Prokofiev, yet another neglected Russian work, Rachmaninov's early lied for cello and piano, was offered as an encore. It served as a touching and suitably contemplative finish to this fine recital, which Isserlis dedicated to the memory of Rostropovich's extraordinary achievements.

John Lutterman is a cellist and musicologist. He holds a D.M.A. from SUNY Stony Brook and a Ph.D. in historical musicology from UC Davis.