By TYRAN GRILLO
The term “chamber music” can be quaint or constricting. In the first sense, it describes music played in a small space and on a smaller scale than, say, a symphony orchestra; in the second sense, a literal and figurative confinement that will never match the volume of said orchestra. Tuesday’s performance by cellist Steven Isserlis and fortepianist Robert Levin at Barnes Hall threw open the windows on both misconceptions. Throughout the evening’s all-Beethoven program, these established musical partners held conversation not only among themselves, but also with the immovable spirit of invention that was the composer’s gift. Beethoven was unprecedented in spotlighting the cello in such an intimate setting, and the duo’s traversal of the Cello Sonatas Nos. 1, 3 and 5 clarified this sea change in duly harmonious fashion.
Yet if the First Sonata, composed in 1796 during Beethoven’s Berlin period, is indicative of any major transformation, one might flag it in the piano’s from mere accompaniment to virtuosic centrality. Throughout the sonata’s two long movements, each working slowly but surely into whirlwinds of expression, cello and fortepiano revealed their affinity at the hands of these two masters. Levin’s running fingers cast shadows of meticulous play across the score, while Isserlis, having consulted on new editions of this very music, secured his ambassadorship a hundredfold.
In quieter moments, notes bled from one to the other, while the loudest illuminated their synchronicity. Isserlis threaded the needle with his sustained bowing and, like a performer who can hold a note while dancing vigorously on stage, kept his tone in check even in wildest abandon. His playing was corporeal in this regard, full of twang and lilting nuance. All the while, Levin’s musicological fecundity and artist’s touch held ground with assured wit at every turn.
From Beethoven’s first piece for this combination, his last, the Fifth Sonata, written in 1815 and broken into three concerto-like movements, showed a more restless soul at work. In performance the sonata drew from fire and shadow in equal measure. Isserlis dug deepest to bring the central Adagio to a state of tangibility, leaving us in exquisite suspense for a magnetic Allegro. Unlike the First Sonata, in which the instruments felt at best like mirrors of one another, here they were vibrant actors. Such was the dynamic throughout the Third Sonata, completed in the same year as his Fifth Symphony. In contrast to the latter’s familiar staccato were the sonata’s dolorous beginnings, offset further by the finery of the joyous Scherzo and a soaring pulse in the finale.
Between these protein bombs, the duo served up the parfait of Beethoven’s 12 Variations on Mozart’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Op. 66. It was a delightful showcase of ingenuity by way of a drama no less operatic, and gave space for dust to settle after breaking down the chamber walls.
Tyran Grillo is a graduate student at Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com.