Cello prize gift pays rich dividend in Shriver recital


April 05, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

One thing Baltimore has never lacked -- at least not since 1978 -- is at least one outstanding young cellist in recital every year. That is because of the generosity of Jephtha Drachman, the daughter of the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and the other members of her family in establishing an annual Piatigorsky Memorial Concert in the Shriver Hall Series. A generous gift to the New England Conservatory of Music by the family has now established a much-enlarged Piatigorsky Prize. Last night in Shriver, the first recipient of that prize, the young English cellist, Steven Isserlis, gave a beautiful recital, worthy in every respect of the Piatigorsky name.

With the distinguished harpsichordist, John Gibbons, Isserlis played two works of Boccherinini (this year is that composer's 250th anniversary) and two works of Bach, but perhaps the greatest music on the program was Benjamin Britten's Suite No. 3 for unaccompanied cello. The unaccompanied suites were written for Mstislav Rostropovich, and other cellists, until quite recently, have tended to shy away from them. The Suite No. 3 is the greatest of them -- perhaps the finest thing, except for the Kodaly Sonata, written for the solo cello since the death of Bach: several short movements, lasting about 20 minutes, that combine Russian folk songs and the Russian Orthodox chant for the dead.

It is an extraordinary piece that betrays a good deal of the influence of Britten's friend, Dmitri Shostakovich. In fact, the only instrumental music I know that is as piercingly sad and heroically tragic as Britten's Suite No. 3 is the Russian's final work, the Viola Sonata. Both works look deep into the heart of darkness.

Isserlis, who has recorded the work as a filler for his best-selling record of John Tavener's "The Protecting Veil" on the Virgin label,played the piece magnificently. The performance was warm, spiritually eloquent and, when necessary, gritty. It is a work that asks the cellist to do practically everything that his instrument is capable of -- and then some. Isserlis' left hand seemed to float up and down his instrument at something like the speed of light and his right arm seemed to possess an unlimited arsenal of varied bow strokes.

In the works by Bach (the Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Viola da Gamba) and by Boccherini (the Sonatas in G Major and C Major), Isserlis and Gibbons played with warmth and refinement. The way the cellist was able to sustain melodies in slow movements testified to the mastery with which he is able to shape phrases. In fast movements, he and his partner made the music flow and eddy naturally, without the sewing-machine patter that can mar performances of this music.

On his own, Gibbons gave a fine performance of Bach's Chromatic fantasy and its companion fugue. The two musicians played a Beethoven set of variations as an encore.

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