Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32 (1872)
Liszt Romance oubliée S132 (1880)
Fauré Romance Op.69 (1894)
Saint-Saëns Romance in F major Op.36 (1874)
Bizet arr. Hollman Carmen fantaisie (not known)
Willaume La noce bretonne Op.14 (pub. 1924)
Holmès arr. Isserlis Noël d’Irlande (1897)
Hahn 2 improvisations sur des airs irlandais (1894 rev. 1911)
Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123 (1905)
Steven Isserlis (cello, above), Connie Shih (piano, below)
Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 16 December 2021
Written by Ben Hogwood
This well-devised program to mark the centenary of the death of Saint-Saëns was put together by cellist Steven Isserlis and his regular partner, pianist Connie Shih. They presented the composer’s two cello sonatas, the first of which was recorded by Isserlis back in 1992, in an intriguing historical context.
There is no room for shrinking violets in the first movement of the Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32, a relatively early work, and both performers threw themselves headlong into the music. Saint-Saëns was a virtuoso pianist, and on occasion his writing for the instrument is as demanding if not more so than the instrument it is ‘accompanying’. Here however the two were on equal terms, with plenty of cut and thrust in a dramatic first movement. The C minor casting and stormy start draw parallels with Beethoven, and these were built upon in the players’ compelling dialogue. The improvisatory slow movement was ideally poised, with an air of mystery in its central section where the cello was in its lowest register, complemented by twinkling figures from the piano. The Allegro moderato third movement returned us to powerful, passionate music, Isserlis’ double stopping passages immaculately delivered and Shih finding the necessary definition and phrasing in a superbly played piano part.
A full 32 years elapsed between the first sonata and its sequel, the Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123. By this time the 70 year-old composer’s style had developed considerably. It is a substantial piece, running over 35 minutes, and is perhaps less-performed on that basis, not to mention the demands made on the performers. Isserlis and Shih showed what a fine work it is, however, in a performance that was gripping from the off, full of passion but also finding the more elusive statements in the quieter music, where Saint-Saëns could be found writing subtle but far-reaching sleights of harmony.
A joyous opening paragraph surged forward with considerable energy, powering an impressive and flowing first movement, Shih harnessing the power of the piano but continuing to hold a sensitive balance. She led off a capricious scherzo, whose variations were brilliantly characterized, from a limpid third variation (marked Tranquille) to a rippling Molto allegro that followed.
The heart of the piece, however, lies in the substantial Romance, a dreamy slow movement with a beautiful melody and a profound middle section turning towards the minor key. Both played with poise and affection, finding the centre of music the audience could fully lose themselves in. The last movement, which the composer promised ‘will wake anyone who’s slept through the rest of the piece’, was terrific, working from its deceptively innocuous opening phrase to throw off the shackles and end in celebratory mood. Isserlis was typically generous with his expression, with Shih deserving credit for her technical command and shapely melodic phrasing. The octaves towards the end were especially well-handled.
While the two sonatas were the main works of the concert, the complementary pieces were no less involving, providing an ideal foil. Firstly we heard from Saint-Saëns’ close friend Liszt, one of his few works for cello and piano. The Romance oubliée began with a recitative, with beautiful tone in the held notes from the cello, setting the (intense) mood. Then another great friend (and pupil), Fauré – whose Romance uses the whole range of the cello, starting in the mysterious depths and ending in the rarefied upper register. Saint-Saens’ own warm-hearted Romance in F major Op.36 was affectionately recounted, before the showstopping Carmen fantasie from Saint-Saëns’ friend and regular recital partner, Joseph Hollman. This was a showstopper, with quickfire dances and a pizzicato Habanera, stylishly done by Isserlis.
Shorter pieces followed from Gabriel Willaume, Reynaldo Hahn and Augusta Holmès, each with fascinating connections to the composer. Willaume’s La noce bretonne (The Breton wedding) was rather moving, its distant drone growing in feeling and power before passing by and disappearing again. Hahn’s 2 improvisations were songlike and affecting in their simplicity, a soulful Willow Tree especially, before an arrangement by Isserlis of Holmès song Noël d’Irlande, its pentatonic language easy to absorb.
This was a very fine concert, with playing of an exceptionally high standard by both artists, but crucially with the involvement that told us how Saint-Saëns, in particular, could combine virtuosity with deep feeling, contrary to some opinion. It is hard to imagine how his centenary could have been better observed – and it ended with a perfectly weighted account of The Swan, one of his most famous shorter pieces – taken as it is from Carnival of the Animals. Isserlis needed only to introduce it with a wave of the hand.
You can watch this concert on the Wigmore Hall website for the next 28 days – and you can hear most of the music played by Isserlis and Shih on the Spotify playlist below, with some of the recordings drawn from their recent album Music from Proust’s Salons. That disc can be heard (and purchased) from the BIS website