For some composers, the cello is a high-maintenance mistress. Francis Poulenc sketched his cello sonata in 1940, but took another eight years to finish it; Frederic Chopin struggled with his G minor cello sonata, telling his sister "I write a little and cross out a lot." But they persevere; as Prokofiev admitted to Mstislav Rostropovich, "I am fascinated by your crazy instrument." On Sunday, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk included Chopin, Poulenc - and, indirectly, Rostropovich - in a well-curated exhibition of the instrument's allure.
The op. 17 Variations Concertantes of Felix Mendelssohn opened, a genially classical theme engendering storms of virtuosity - Prospero whipping up a theatrical squall to amuse his guests - before swirling off in a sparkling haze. The performance sparkled as well, Denk's sumptuous, velvety playing setting the table for Isserlis's casually poised phrasing and often wiry tone.
That tone started to take on an edge in the Chopin. A stream-of-consciousness interpretation finessed the structural scaffolding of the weighty first movement, the composer exploring the heft of a venerable form late in his life, but the Sonata was most riveting at its quietest: in the Scherzo's haunting trio and the long-spun bel canto of the Largo, Isserlis's lean timbre lent a quality of emotional reticence, delicately supported by Denk's impeccably smooth legato.
Edginess found a happier home in Benjamin Britten's 1960 Sonata in C, the first fruits of Britten's friendship with Rostropovich. With a part tailored to the instrument's physicality - low buzz, the bow's wood, a quiet frenzy of pizzicato - Isserlis was both sly and scorching, with glinting, tense energy.
Britten's often sparse piano part, again expertly piloted by Denk, emphasizes the extremes of the keyboard, opening up space for the cello's more veiled registers, but also recalling his music for the dark, enchanted/haunted forest in his near-contemporaneous opera of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - "the lightning in the collied night," as Shakespeare put it, distilled for two players.
And the result of Poulenc's eight years' tinkering? Quintessential Poulenc, so expertly translated for the cello that someone unfamiliar with the instrument's quirks wouldn't even notice the effort. Poulenc brings his familiar, Gallic tropes and turns of phrase, but the beauty is the mysterious way he turns those well-worn motives to such varied ends, from bonhomie to brittleness, from tristesse to triumph.
With a deceptive nonchalance the composer would have recognized, Isserlis and Denk caught it all.