Dvorak: Walderuhe, Op. 68, No. 5
Suk: Ballade and Serenade for Cello and Piano, Op. 3
Schubert: Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano, D. 821
Hough: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Left Hand, "Les Adieux"
Grieg: Cello Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36
Long-time personal friends and music partners Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough can each rightly claim to be able to fill the sizeable concert hall of the Upper East Side’s 92Y on their own, having done just that for many years now. So it is hard to believe that last Wednesday evening was their New York recital debut as a duo there, but at least the much overdue occasion had the priceless advantage of instantaneously doubling the audience's pleasure.
Although the repertoire for cello and piano is relatively limited compared to some other instrument pairings, nothing had been left to chance. The program included two popular classics book-ending three intriguing curiosities and was performed in a genuinely warm and relaxed atmosphere, just as if we had unexpectedly dropped in on a private session of two exceptionally gifted buddies having a little fun together.
The concert opened with the lovely "Walderuhe" by Anton Dvorak, who for the occasion had ventured away from his typical bohemian rambunctiousness and into the celebrated silent woods with much sensitivity and success. Faithful to their respective signature styles, Steven Isserlis took charge of the cello part with passionate panache while Stephen Hough remained exactingly elegant at the piano.
We stuck around the realm of Czech composers with Josef Suk and his engaging Ballade and Serenade for Cello and Piano, which he wrote when he was a mere 16-year-old student of...Dvorak. And sure enough, the same combination of attractive melodies and organic liveliness was readily found here and beautifully emphasized by the two musicians.
Franz Schubert's Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggione and Piano was originally composed for the short-lived bowed guitar and the piano, and later adapted for the cello because discarding a composition by Schubert would be nothing but a crime. In Isserlis' expert hands, the cello part sounded effortlessly natural while Hough kept the piano a steady partner.
The fact that the distinguished pianist’s musical talent is not limited to mastering the keyboard was proven by the next piece, his sonata "Les Adieux", which he wrote at Steven Isserlis' request for a common pianist friend of theirs who had temporarily lost the use of his right hand. The result was downright appealing with a melancholic beginning followed by an impressive build-up before a quiet conclusion.
The major work of the concert had been kept for last in Edvard Grieg's beloved Cello Sonata in A Minor. Written after a long period during which illness and conducting kept him away from his primary calling, the newly revved-up composer did not hold back at the time, and neither did the musicians on Wednesday night. The stunning lyrical lines by the cello were perfectly complemented by the well-defined intricacies coming from the piano. Add to that just the right amount of flamboyance and we had a total winner.
Just when we did not think it could get any better, we got to enjoy what turned out to be the highlight of the evening in Ludwig Lebell's "Berceuse orientale", not that much because of the short piece's inherent charm, but because of the delightful routine it came with. As Steven and Stephen had started playing, a man came out of the wings carrying a tray and two flutes of champagne, which he matter-of-factly brought to the musicians, who promptly grabbed them. And the affable duo carried on, one hand dexterously playing their instrument, the other one holding their flute for the occasional cheering and leisurely sip. Cheers!