Musica Viva continues to celebrate its 70th anniversary in style, and on this night added to the sense of occasion with a tribute concert for Melbourne’s great patron of music, the late Paul Morawetz. The musicians charged with making the evening memorable were the always-welcome cellist Steven Isserlis with a new musical partner, the pianist Connie Shih.
The cello shape, being the most akin to a human body, has inspired everything from great art work to semi-crude jokes attributed to famous conductors, but (literally) in the hands of Stephen Isserlis the cello is a warm, beautiful and living thing. Shih, on the other hand, was dwarfed by the Steinway – and seemed at times to fight with it, so physical was her performance. But the match of performers was a good one, with Shih proving herself to be far more than just the accompanying musician in this partnership.
Saint-Saens’ Cello Sonata no 1 in C minor, op 32 was a good choice to begin, having both a declamatory beginning and a quick transition to the quiet lyricism that one associates with Isserlis. The demanding accompaniment with scales in quick succession was also a fine introduction to the pianist Connie Shih. Both players met the challenge of fast fingerwork, played sotto voce in what seemed like a race between two champions right up to the thrilling end to this first movement. The Andante was more of a brisk stroll then simply a “walking pace” with a lot of interest in its composition. The cello had long notes, the piano full chords as the movement developed to a very rich and mellow sound and a gentle ending. The Allegro was “maestoso” from the first bar, with Shih’s broken chords disguising the actual speed of her performance. A fortissimo climax drew strength and speed from both before a striking single note (as in the beginning) heralded a frantic ending.
Isserlis and Shih were very at home with this well-thought-out program of mainly 19th century French music. Saint-Saens’ near contemporary Faure continued the mix of drama and lyricism, with his Cello Sonata no 2 in G minor, op 117. The piano introduced Faure’s characteristic flowing style, and soon the duo relaxed into a pattern of long notes for the cello and the piano both echoing the melody and contributing harmony through arpeggios and broken chords. The cellist’s famous sensitivity shone through in the Andante, matched or supported by the piano, with lovely subtle variations in the melody, and superb resonance in the passionate development of this movement. As with the previous work, the final movement allowed for contrasts such as a lovely interlude of delicate broken chords from the piano and finally a brilliant ending.
There was a true contrast with Lieux retrouvés (Rediscovered places) by the contemporary composer Thomas Ades. Stephen Isserlis’s introduction to the audience proved very helpful to hearing the elements of the music: the fast-moving water, the illusion of heavy footsteps and bumping on the mountain, the fields with slow, exploratory and delicate cello, so high as to be almost unearthly. The can-can taxed the limits of technique with Isserlis reputedly claiming the final movement of the work (which Ades wrote for him) to be the hardest piece he’d ever learned. Perhaps it was, but it also gave him the opportunity to demonstrate great mastery of his instrument.
Connie Shih had her chance to shine in the next work, with gentle piano leading straight into the lyrical first statement of Franck’s Cello Sonata, from Violin Sonata in A major. It has to be said that many in the hall did not favour this change of solo instrument in such a well-known piece, but the balance between cello and piano, and the melodic power of the sonata, was instantly appealing. The composition ranged from a heavily ornamented Fantasia with moments of trance-inducing quiet to a fast allegro to music that was engaging in its simplicity.
In all, as with everything that had gone before, the performers were beautifully in accord. Isserlis seemed almost ecstatic as both performers had quite a workout, the final movement developing into a more florid version of an earlier theme, and drew the best from both of them. This was music for piano and cello at its richest and most satisfying.