Straying From the Canon With Unfamiliar Fare

Jeremy Denk
New York Times

By Steve Smith

By no means has the vital English cellist Steven Isserlis excluded the standard repertory for his instrument from his purview, on record or onstage. But bringing to light unfamiliar and worthy works by second-tier Romantics as well as contemporary composers seems to give Mr. Isserlis special delight. That his interests can draw sizable numbers of palpably engaged listeners is a credit to his estimable skills, enlightened advocacy and communicative powers.

The latest example of this knack came on Thursday night, when Mr. Isserlis drew a healthy audience for a program of unfamiliar pieces old and new at the 92nd Street Y, a space not as closely associated with musical adventure as it often deserves. That he regularly plays there presumably had something to do with the turnout. But Mr. Isserlis also had a noteworthy partner in Jeremy Denk, a pianist whose broad tastes and personable virtuosity make him a kindred spirit.

The closest the program came to canonical fare were Saint-Saëns’s Cello Sonata No. 1, which opened the concert’s first half, and Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 2, which closed it. Each is an example of pristine craftsmanship, with exuberant outer movements flanking a soulful central Andante. Neither suggested a masterpiece unduly neglected, but both were worth encountering in performances this polished and assured.

Two piano works by Liszt were originally planned to separate the sonatas. Instead Mr. Denk played three of Gyorgy Ligeti’s études, offering precisely the mix of extravagant technique and potent imagination these dazzling works demand. Mr. Denk is due to play Ligeti’s first two books of études at Zankel Hall in February. To judge from the jazzily careening “Fanfares,” the achingly poignant “Arc-en-Ciel” and the obsessively rumbling “Automne à Varsovie” here, tickets for the Zankel event are a shrewd investment.

Mr. Isserlis opened the program’s second half with four unaccompanied selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Signs, Games and Messages.” Each was an economical miracle of portraiture, with the sparest of means yielding characterful results. Banking on his listeners’ trust Mr. Isserlis earned their approval with his precise, heartfelt performances. He elegantly assumed vocal lines in his own arrangement of Ravel’s “Deux Mélodies Hébraïques” — the incantatory “Kaddisch” and the quizzical “Énigme Éternelle” — with gracious support from Mr. Denk.

In March at Zankel Hall Mr. Isserlis presented the American premiere of “Lieux Retrouvés,” written for him by the English composer Thomas Adès, who played piano for that occasion. An arrestingly inventive four-part evocation of natural and urban vistas, the piece is full to bursting with raucous, scintillating and zany effects. Mr. Denk joined Mr. Isserlis in a persuasive account, warmly received by the audience. After so much exertion, it was no surprise that they favored a tender encore, Fauré’s Berceuse (Op. 16).