Artist Recital Explores Memory in Music

From the Oberlin Review:

Memory is an imperfect phenomenon, distorting events so that insignificant details are highlighted and hours are compressed into a single image. That mutability is famously explored by Marcel Proust in his landmark novel Remembrance of Things Past, which served as a unifying theme for Jeremy Denk’s and Steven Isserlis’s Artist Recital on Tuesday.

            That theme first emerged in the programming. Both Oberlin graduates, Mr. Denk ‘80, and Mr. Isserlis ’90, presented a nostalgic concert of French chamber works from la belle époque, the era around the turn of the 19th century when the arts flourished in Parisian salons. Proust matured in those salons, and would have heard some of the works performed by Mr. Denk and Mr. Isserlis, perhaps played by the composers themselves. He even was a lover of Reynaldo Hahn, whose Variations chantantes sur un air ancien opened the program.

            The Variations were a distant remembrance until Mr. Isserlis rediscovered the score in England after they languished unperformed for seventy years. For his “air ancien,” Hahn tapped into music’s long memory and used a melody from the 17th century. Instead of radically altering the theme, Hahn instead keeps it always recognizable and adds filigree and rhythmic invention. Mr. Isserlis’s involvement in the piece was visible when he released his cello and lovingly drew out open-stringed notes with both hands.

            The Hahn piece was followed by Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 117. Written in 1921, the Sonata came from a period in Fauré’s life that could be subtitled “Remembrance of Sounds Past,” as he was by then completely deaf. The loss of hearing is evident in his music; it is sparser and occupies a weird harmonic space. Throughout the piece, Mr. Denk shone in his ability to endow the simplest accompaniments with an exquisite beauty. His minute gradations of tone in the solemn second movement heightened the melody’s incredible sense of loss, while the restraint of any excessive emotion made it painfully poignant. That sadness is dismissed in the third movement, where hairpin shifts from striving figures to joking flurries of notes were expertly executed by Mr. Denk and Mr. Isserlis.

            Remembrance and Proust were a direct inspiration on Thomas Adès’s piece Lieux retrouvés, written for Mr. Isserlis and recently recorded by him for Hyperion with the composer. Adès attempted in the work to capture the feeling of a place in music, in the same way that Proust did in literature. The tempestuous first movement depicts mercurial water, eddying, whirling, and ending in the pizzicato crash of a wave. Pizzicato then becomes an important feature of the next movement, which illustrates mountains: jazzy rhythms are shattered by falling boulders in the bass of the piano, while jagged lines sketch craggy mountaintops. In the tranquil third movement, an unadorned melody floats into the stratosphere on the cello, eventually dissipating among the twinkling stars of the piano. The last movement, a “Cancan macabre,” brutally bashes into walls, stumbles over feet, and boorishly romps to an abrupt conclusion. Both performers threw off the impossibly technical music with ease.

            Saint-Saëns’s rhapsodic Romanza from the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123, which opened the second half of the program, follows an expressive cello line through a variety of moods and textures. Mr. Isserlis gave a passionate performance over Mr. Denk’s perfectly balanced playing.

            The last work was the hyper-Romantic Franck Violin Sonata in A Major, arranged for cello by Jules Delsart. A recurring theme that recurs throughout the piece grounds the listener even in the third movement, a Fantasia reminiscent of the Saint-Saëns Romanza in its unexpected shifts. The fourth movement brought the program back full circle by echoing the first movement of the Franck Sonata: in both the melody is played by both the piano and cello, but offset by one measure.

            La belle époque was encapsulated in the encore, Saint-Saëns’s Romance for cello and piano, Op. 36, a light, elegant serenade.

            Memory and its distortions are well suited as a theme for a concert. For, just as it is often the small details that are most vivid in retrospect, a truly great performance is distinguished by tiny moments of beauty. On Tuesday, Mr. Denk and Mr. Isserlis found those moments, and exhibited them marvelously.

 

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