Saint-Saëns: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 1 in C Minor, Op 32
Ligeti: Three études from Book 1: Fanfare – Arc-en-ciel – Automne à Varsovie
Fauré: Sonata for Cello and Piano No 2 in G Minor, Op. 117
Kurtág: Selections from Signs, Games and Messages for Solo Cello
Ravel: Deux mélodies hébraïques for Cello and Piano (arr. Isserlis): Kaddish and L’énigme éternelle
Adès: Lieux retrouvés for Cello and Piano: Les eaux – La montagne – Les champs – La ville
New York’s famous 92nd Street Y had always sounded like a magical Shangri La to me. As a live performance lover, I had heard about it from reviews, ads and people, but I had never actually been there before moving to the Big Apple. As a matter of course, since the Upper West Side is apparently musicians’ central, I was 110% sure that it was located there and was consequently overjoyed when I found an apartment that would be, at most, just a few blocks away. After signing the lease and dropping numerous boxes in my new home, a quick but exhaustive walk on West 92nd Street eventually proved fruitless. I then had the bright idea of Googling the place… and found out that it was straight across the park, on the Upper East Side.
Never mind, I was still closer to it than a couple of months ago and I figured that as a neighbor-from-across-the-park it was high time to pay it a visit. First impressions being key I carefully reviewed their winter program and the first concert that caught my attention was a recital by highly regarded long-time visiting cellist Steven Isserlis and just as highly regarded local pianist Jeremy Denk. Two endlessly intriguing performers presenting an equally intriguing program sounded just like the perfect way to kick off a most likely long-term patronizing to this concert venue.
And it all started with an assault of energy courtesy of the introduction of the Saint-Saëns sonata. It was an attractive opening number, all comfortable harmonies and rigorous balance. Both musicians being as well-known for their physical expressiveness as their musical talent, we got treated to an all-around performance including sounds and visions while they steadily and effortlessly complemented each other.
Next came a surprise. Instead of the two pieces by Liszt announced in the program, Jeremy Denk decided to tackle the three final études from Ligeti's Book 1 for his solo turn, and he generously communicated his deep commitment to the music with flawless technique and remarkable eloquence.
The Fauré sonata turned out to be the highlight of the evening for me thanks to its beautifully soaring Andante, a breath-taking rêverie that immediately brought to my mind Franck’s beloved sonata that I heard performed, maybe not so coincidentally, by the same Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell a couple of years ago. Incidentally, the fact that this particularly movement distinguished itself enough to become a separate Élégie even before the sonata was completed speaks volumes of its intrinsic qualities.
After intermission, it was Steven Isserlis’ turn as a soloist and he had chosen four pieces by contemporary Romanian composer György Kurtág. This was a fortuitous choice as the audience swallowed them all up, from the quietness of the Homage to John Cage, smartly ending on a perky note, to the stop-and-go rhythm of Gérard de Nerval, inspired by the 19th century poet, to the downright minimalist, subtly atmospheric Shadows and Kroó György in memoriam.
With Jeremy Denk back at the piano, Steven Isserlis got another golden opportunity to display his wide-ranging skills with Two Hebrew Songs by Ravel, which he arranged himself for his instrument. The first one, Kaddish, was a wonderful showcase for the cello’s vocal-like qualities while the second one L’énigme éternelle (The Eternal Enigma) turned out to be less lyrical but efficiently touching in its simplicity.
The last work on the program, Lieux retrouvés (Rediscovered Places) by young British composer Thomas Adès made the most of the piano and cello’s musical possibilities to convey the flowing Waters, the moody Mountain, the peaceful Fields and the exciting City. A non-stop wild ride for performers and audience alike, it kept us all on the edge before leaving us happily breathless.
To end this brazenly eclectic and enormously satisfying concert, we got a sweet, lovely lullaby, which had all of us dreamily swoon until the very last note.