Isserlis/Hough – review

Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis is the Wigmore Hall's artist in residence this season – not that you would necessarily know it, as he is never away from the venue for long anyway. Concerts such as this give its audience good reason to be grateful.

Teamed with pianist Stephen Hough, whose own cello concerto he premiered four years ago, Isserlis was half of an inspired duo, perfectly balanced musically – if not always in terms of volume: though Hough was unfailingly sensitive, it was inevitable that a Steinway with the lid fully open would trump a gut-stringed cello.

Yet their programme – and their way of playing it – was more often introspective than assertive. The pieces in the first half were written by Bach, Busoni and Brahms when they were in their 20s. Yet Isserlis and Hough, neither far off 50, gave us performances that seemed consciously mature, with an occasional hint of resignation.

The opening piece – a transcription of Bach's Adagio from the Toccata in C for organ – was a high point. Isserlis spun the melodic line with understated expression, while Hough's chords suggested lonely, echoing spaces. Kultaselle, a set of fiery variations on a Finnish folksong by Busoni, brought some fierce responses around a muted yet effective climax.

But it was Brahms's Sonata No 1 in which the players' approach made its clearest mark. Saving the fire for the moments when it was impossible to play any other way, they dug deep into the music's uncertainties. The second movement's waltz found them whirling slowly together with haunting hesitation.

Two sombre song transcriptions by Liszt were followed by Grieg's A minor Sonata, a concerto-like piece that had Isserlis and Hough sparking off each other all the way to the supercharged ending. Another song, Schubert's Nacht und Traume, was the encore, ending the evening with as much intensity as it started.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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