In March 2006 I had the pleasure of hearing Steven Isserlis participate in a glorious performance of chamber music by Schubert at the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge. Thirteen months later, I found myself deeply intrigued by the prospect of his all-Schumann recital at the Wigmore Hall.
Not only was my curiosity piqued by his choice of programming (there is only one surviving work by the composer originally conceived for ‘cello and piano) but also by a desire to discover how well the other “Schu” would fit.
Though the well-known cliché “a tale of two halves” is most often reserved for sporting occasions, it could easily be applied to this concert, as the performances prior to the interval left me somewhat puzzled. This was not due to the works on offer most of which were delightful arrangements authorised by Schumann or produced subsequently by renowned ‘cellists nor did it stem from Isserlis’ sensitive and (for the most part) focused playing. It was, rather, down to the musically strained rapport between Isserlis and his accompanist, the Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon.
If Steven Isserlis has a weakness, it is that his playing is inclined to lack volume, the cause of which rests, one suspects, with the instrument rather than the technique of the person playing it. There was a strong sense throughout the first half that Várjon was struggling to control the Wigmore’s Steinway, its lid wide open, in relation to Isserlis’ tone production. This preoccupation with issues of balance led to piano accompaniments that were often underplayed, disjointed, or lacking in resonance.
These unfortunate attributes were particularly apparent in Alfredo Piatti’s arrangement of the Mrchenbilder Op. 113. The restful opening had initially displayed great promise, with convincing imitative passages between ‘cello and piano and Várjon achieving a beautiful depth of tone. However, there were times in the middle movements when both performers seemed out of kilter, while Isserlis’ hauntingly beautiful ‘cello line in the finale was not matched by Várjon’s rather lifeless accompaniment. Nevertheless it was hard to fault Isserlis, whose fiendish double stops and devilishly difficult triplet arpeggios in the second and third movements respectively were delivered with absolute aplomb.
Similar foibles characterised much of the opening Fantasiestcke Op. 73. The first movement proved a difficult piece with which to begin the concert, as both musicians’ valiant attempts to create an ethereal and wistful sound world resulted in a performance that was not as arresting as it could indeed, should have been. The following Lebhaft, leicht marked a slight improvement, as Isserlis’ ingenious and intricate variations of fingering made a valuable contribution to his reading.
However, it was not until the rousing final movement that a desirable level of intensity was reached. Signs of better things to come occurred in Isserlis’ fine arrangement of Schumann’s idiosyncratic Violin Sonata No. 3. Though there were times when Várjon’s playing lacked direction, there was undoubtedly a greater sense of unity and freedom throughout all four movements, from the rhythmic vitality of the Scherzo to the warm simplicity of the third-movement Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell. Meanwhile, Isserlis’ bold ventures into the ‘cello’s loftier registers, particularly in the first movement, were mesmerising.
Watching the second half was almost akin to witnessing an entirely separate concert, such was the transformation of the overall musical experience. It was immediately apparent in the Three Romances Op. 94 that Isserlis and Várjon had somehow gained a new and improved understanding of each other. Unlike the opening Fantastiestcke, these miniatures possessed a riveting level of concentration throughout, while the problems of balance took a back seat to the pleasures of sumptuous phrasing.
This newfound fluency overflowed into a tremendous performance of the Adagio and Allegro Op. 70. The introductory slow movement simmered with a romantic yearning that is so distinctly Schumannesque, as Isserlis and Várjon ploughed the depths of their respective tonal kaleidoscopes. This unbridled passion then gave way to the abundant joy of the Allegro, in which Isserlis captivated the audience with his near-personification of the work’s blissful ecstasy. Though Várjon teetered dangerously on the edge of the pre-interval precipice sometimes failing to provide a suitably rich texture it was not enough to mar the overall brilliance of both work and performance.
Similar praises can be levelled at the concluding 5 Stcke im Volkston Op. 102. With Isserlis and Várjon on top form, each character piece was notable for its distinctive portrayal of disparate moods, from the rollicking comedy of the opening Mit Humor to the tragic dance-of-death-like third movement. The Wigmore Hall patrons were then presented with a delightful encore by one of Schumann’s close contemporaries. Felix Mendelssohn’s evergreen Song Without Words was given a heartfelt rendition by both performers, drawing to a close an evening of enjoyable, if frustratingly enigmatic, music-making.