Britten: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65
Schumann (arr. Isserlis): Sonata No 3 for Violin and Piano in A Minor
Rachmaninoff: Sonata for Cello and piano in G Minor, Op. 19
Now that we have entered this brand new year (this brand new decade!) it is high time to get back into the groove of live musical performances again. So last night, for the first time in a while, I walked the familiar road to the Kennedy Center for a recital by internationally renowed cellist Steven Isserlis and recent Gilmore award recipient pianist Kirill Gerstein, who were performing at the Terrace Theater as part of the much appreciated Kennedy Center Fortas Chamber Music Concerts series. An attractive, international program was on hand with sonatas by Britten, Schumann and Rachmaninoff, all of them highlighting the less often enjoyed piano-cello combination. And the fact that the works would be presented by such a distinguished Russian connection was a decidedly most auspicious way to start a brand new musical year.
Especially written for Rostropovich by Britten after the Russian cellist insistently requested something for the cello during their first encounter, it was premiered by both masters in Aldeburg in 1961 and would also mark the beginning of a long, solid and productive friendship. The five movements of the sonata have very distinct personalities, from aggressively fragmented to beautifully heart-felt, and form an original musical arch. Undaunted, the two musicians authoritatively took charge of the demanding work and delivered a colorful, virtuosic interpretation of it.
After Britten’s modern, occasionally grating, piece we moved back in time and crossed the pond for a rarely heard composition born in unusual circumstances. It all started when Schumann, Brahms and Dietrich, a student of the latter, decided to collaborate on a sonata for violin and piano for the violinist Joseph Joachim, even calling it the “F.A.E.” (Frei aber einsam – Free but alone) Sonata as per the recipient’s motto. After its first performance, Schumann quickly added an opening movement and a scherzo to his intermezzo and finale before having the cataclysmic breakdown from which he would never fully recover. The sonata was consequently never published, but luckily for us Steven Isserlis has deemed it highly worthy of the spotlight and arranged it for the cello. Yesterday evening, the result turned out to be an often restless but fully engaging work, which was performed with just the right amount of energy and harmony.
And the evening kept on getting better. After the intermission, we all quickly became enthralled by Rachmaninoff’s beautifully expressive Sonata for Cello and piano in G Minor. The Russian composer wrote very little chamber music, but he still infused this piece with his trademark gentleness and melancholy, giving both instruments plenty of opportunities to shine. The piano may have been the leader here, but the cello melodic lines came up so starkly lyrical, beaming with rich dark hues, that they magnificently rose and soared, bringing us all to this ever-elusive higher ground.
A pared-down, magically etheral version of Elgar's "Nimrod" concluded this most satisfying recital, one that will be remembered as a decidedly promising start of a new year. Onwards and forwards!