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When in Dire Need, Call on Jeremy Denk

New York
Theresa L. Kaufmann Auditorium, 92nd Street Y
06/04/2022 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Fragments of Cello Suites
Felix Mendelssohn: Variations concertantes, opus 17 – Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in D Major, opus 58

Steven Isserlis (cello), Jeremy Denk (piano), Edoardo Ballarini (reading)

J. Denk, S. Isserlis (© Courtesy of 92nd Street Y Archives)

In creating and designing her new festival “The Bach-Mendelssohn Connection”, Hanna Arie Gaifman, director emerita of the Tisch Center of 92nd Street Y, had a goal of bringing forth not only the music of those two composers but also, forgotten to many, relations between the sons of J.S.Bach and forefathers of Felix Mendelssohn. It turns out that the interest in Bach’s music that young Felix had shown was multi-layered and inspired in equal measure by his own genius and a subtle influence of his maternal grandma Sara Levy. In our day, not too many people remember that she was a favorite student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and famed as well for being both an excellent performer of Bach’s music not to mention one of the first female performers before the public.

Levy later became even better known as an influential philanthropist and famous collector of manuscripts. And it was she who presented her grand‑nephew Felix Mendelssohn with the copy of Bach’s St Matthew Passion which he later conducted for the first time after Bach’s death. That fact surely challenges the old tales of some obscure butcher using Bach’s manuscripts as a wrapping paper.

In designing the programs and choosing the venues, Hanna Gaifman envisioned certain events as a sort of replication of the legendary gatherings which took place in the opulent salons of the Bartholdy’s in Berlin, where the music, reading of poetry, and discussions intermingled. There, the young Felix and his equally talented sister Fanny first showed their skills as performers and composers. Thus, a few of the festival’s events were going to be presented at the art gallery (Arader Galleries on Madison Avenue was the hospitable venue), while the others concerts that would attract a larger crowd, were to be offered in the traditional settings of Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, which also happens to be one of the best sounding rooms for chamber music in New York City.

One such event, at the said Arader Galleries, will remain in memory perhaps not exactly for the reasons intended. That afternoon we had as a soloist Iranian-American Mahan Esfahani, a formidable harpsichord player who was to offer a program composed of works by composers who either might have inspired J.S.Bach, such as Cabezón or Froberger, or were his sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel. Esfahani played, of course, the work of the great Johann Sebastian, his French Suite No. 2 in C Minor. Alas, Mr. Esfahani made a decision of playing not the harpsichord but a clavichord, an instrument that possesses many expressive qualities that the larger harpsichord doesn’t, but it’s also totally unsuitable for a large salon. The model of clavichord Mr. Esfahani used was, by his own admittance, a very quiet one. Thus we heard the barely audible instrument with the pervasive accompaniment of the ambulances’ sirens, diesel engines of large trucks, and other customary noises coming through the windows from the busy Madison Avenue. As it was obliquely announced in the program, the concert commenced indeed from a communal meditation led by Ms. Corinna de Fonseca Wollheim, a former music critic of the New York Times. Well, in my decades of attending concerts, I don’t think I have experienced a similarly bizarre affair. By keeping my eyes open, contrary to Ms. Wollheim directives (she wanted us to “feel our inner self” with eyes closed), I observed that my fellow soft-music-lovers were far more obedient and quite satisfied with the prolonged preamble to the concert. Somehow I doubt that at Bartholdy’s or Levy’s salons they either meditated before Felix and Fanny’s performances or for that matter used clavichords as the venue for the keyboard skills of local pianists. That being said, one can’t overstate Mr. Esfahani’s contribution not only as a fantastic player but even more so for his wonderfully insightful explanations and demonstrations of the instrument. To all of us, his observations, comments and illustration on how marvelous the clavichord can sound were invaluable indeed. I would definitely like to have another chance to hear the same performer on a larger and louder clavichord and... in a much more clavichord-friendly venue!

Having missed the first event, which presented the combined efforts of the Emerson and Calidore String Quartets performing the music of both festivals’ dedicatees, I felt privileged to attend the second event, which featured the famed and well‑known British cellist Steven Isserlis and at the piano his equally superb partner Jeremy Denk. The program consisted of a handful of fragments from the Cello Suites and two substantial scores by Mendelssohn.

The first part of the program was narrated by the cellist’s friend and actor Edoardo Ballerini who offered a delightful, deadpan assistance reading from Isserlis’ new book on Bach cello suites. It is called The Bach Cello Suites: A Companion and judging from the fragments we heard it’s well worth getting acquainted with its content.

One could have argued that the proportion between the narration and music was a bit skewed toward the talk, yet one can’t blame the author for pushing his new writing. as he did it in his typical charming, self-effacing manner with plenty of witty and wise comments on Bach’s masterworks.

During the moments when the author himself would address the audience, we were reminded that in addition to being a superb performer, Isserlis is also one of the most communicative, charming, personable and knowledgeable musicians before the public today. He shared some very interesting thoughts, opinions, and observations that pertained to the performance of Bach’s Suites richly illustrated on cello, one of which pertained to matters of articulation and phrasing, which Mr. Isserlis patiently–and with humor!–demonstrated to us. Isserlis then turned his attention to a very important issue which is the dance. As Isserlis mentioned, that element was ever‑present in “every fiber of Bach’s body” and in almost every one of composition and nowhere more than in the works which consisted of varied stylized dances of the era. It seems to me that among today’s leading cellists, Isserlis, more than anybody else, embodies these qualities, and brings to his Bach that bouncy, dancing character of the courantes, bourrées and gigues. And contrary to his reverential approach to those admittedly great works, his supposed self‑doubt “who am I to play this most perfect music?” delicately speaking, rings false. Mr. Isserlis, you don’t give yourself enough credit!

The second part of the concert was devoted to two works for piano and cello by Mendelssohn; in the performance as originally planned, we were going to hear Mr. Isserlis together with another Brit, Mishka Rushdie Momen, his frequent partner at the piano. Alas, she was not able to obtain the American visa in time for the recital and Mr. Isserlis had to find her substitute. As luck would have it, his friend Jeremy Denk, with whom he also previously performed, was in town and getting ready for his performance at the same Festival a few days hence with the Polish violinist Maria Wloszczowska.

It is maybe cruel to declare, but Ms. Rushdie Momen’s loss may well have turned out to be the audience’s gain. On few days’ notice, Denk re‑learned and prepared those two highly demanding scores and played them magnificently. Hearing him one would believe that he was practicing his Mendelssohn Sonata and Variations concertantes for the last three months, not three days!

Mendelssohn’s output for cello and piano is rather small: he wrote for that combination just two Sonatas and the Variations concertantes. The First Sonata in B flat (opus 45) was created with his brother Paul in mind. Through most of his life, Paul was connected with the banking profession, and served as a trusted advisor to his brother Felix, and later to Cecile, the composer’s widow; he was also an accomplished amateur cellist. Felix also wrote his brilliant Variations concertantes for him. The Sonata in D Major is a much more virtuosic composition, and actually could also be called “Sonata-Concertante,” for the dominating element is that of virtuosity. Written in 1843, the work was performed in 1845 in London by the composer assisted by Piatti, one of the great cellists of the epoch. The two outer movements are about the most ebullient, cheerful, and optimistic of all Mendelssohn chamber music: the last movement is even more gracious and sparkling than its predecessor. The mood of the first movement and its repeated triplet chords remind one quite a bit of the “Italian” Symphony. The second movement Allegretto employs canonic writing and challenges the piano to imitate the cello’s pizzicato. At the end of the middle episode, which could be considered a Trio section, Mendelssohn throws at the pianist an extended, very demanding, stormy passage in left‑hand octaves. In the following chorale Adagio, some listeners are reminded of the oratorio Elijah or simply put, cantorial chant. Here Mendelssohn combines two distinct heritages, Protestant and cantorial-Jewish. The exhilarating, lifting finale in a form of a rondo, in mood and character akin to the last movements of either the famous Violin Concerto or “Italian” Symphony, dramatically starts attaca and for almost two dozen measures builds tension by withholding the tonic. It is a true charmer, elating, breathtaking, and exceedingly demanding for the pianist.

In its outer movements, this Sonata needs from both performers incredible fleetness and lightness of touch as well as the sense of almost exhilaration, and abandon. I am happy to report that both our soloists delivered it in abundance. What one sometimes lacks in performances of Mendelssohn is that hint of capaciousness and elegance which makes this music so much more appealing. And in the performance of Isserlis and Denk, we had those two very important elements ever‑present. Mr. Denk is an elegant pianist with effortless technique and innate musicality and those qualities make him such a much sought‑after partner.

I simply don’t recall the D Major Sonata performed as ardently and ecstatically and, as already stated, much of the credit should be given to the formidable pianist who we were lucky to have as a substitute that evening.

After a very enthusiastic standing ovation, the audience was favored with an encore; after those two Mendelssohn works, one might have expected more of that composer (like for instance a little gem and made‑for‑an‑encore Song Without Words opus 109) but instead, we heard an arrangement of Bach’s chorale Ich ruf zu Dir, more frequently performed in Busoni’s solo piano arrangement. But since it was an evening featuring both Bach and Mendelssohn, it was not all that inappropriate to be sent home smiling and singing one of Bach’s organ chorales.

Roman Markowicz



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