Bell, Isserlis, Denk

Last night’s performance by Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, and Jeremy Denk was surely one of the highlights of this season. The trio performed four meaty trios and held the packed Strathmore audience rapt from the very first phrase. Presented by Washington Performing Arts, the program called for the highest virtuosity, which the threesome delivered.  

The piano trio genre is particularly susceptible to “star turns,” where three big soloists intersect briefly for a recording, a few supporting concerts, and then go their separate ways. The frisson from such one-off groupings can certainly be exciting, but the music itself is often secondary.  However, these three artists have decades-long relationships with one another. Denk and Bell attended Indiana University together, and were recital partners for many years; Isserlis and Bell recorded the Ravel Trio 20 years ago (with a different pianist) and recently recorded the Brahms Double Concerto. Last night it was clear that in addition to general conviviality, the performers had spent considerable time rehearsing. Ensemble was airtight, even in the most frenetic pages, and every gear-change came off smoothly.    

Though Denk is perhaps less famous than his two colleagues, he was the star of the evening. In the Mendelssohn D minor, the Shostakovich E minor, the Rachmaninoff G minor, and the Ravel trios, all the heavy lifting is done by the piano. The strings often sing a simple melody which the composer decorates with highly complex keyboard figuration. With many fewer notes to play, string players will often opt for tempos that are uncomfortably fast for the piano. Tempi last night often teetered on the frantic, yet Denk was unflappable, handling the nearly impossible keyboard demands of the Ravel with insouciant ease. Most impressively, at the same time he almost solved the Isserlis Problem.

Isserlis is a superlative cellist; lively, accurate, and imaginative. He expresses unbridled joy in performance and invests even the simplest lines with impish character, but the multi-hued colors he draws from his Stradivarius are often lost. Because of his insistence on using old-fashioned gut strings, his sound is all about quality rather than quantity, and when a fortissimo is called for he often falls short, whether against a full orchestra or just two colleagues in a trio. Denk’s challenge was to scale his sound not against the brilliance of Bell’s violin but against the underpowered cellist, all of this made still more difficult by the group’s decision to play with the piano lid fully raised (a mistake for any trio, in my view). Clearly, balance issues were on Denk’s mind in every bar, and he made as much room for Isserlis as he could, backing off even in climactic moments. This still wasn’t enough in the finale of the Mendelssohn and a few other spots, where the cello often simply disappeared, but the care taken was admirable.

Bell could have helped a little more, too. Even with his mute on, he overbalanced Isserlis in the opening of the Shostakovich, and his sound dominated a bit too much in the Mendelssohn. But the camaraderie and sweep of the performances, from heaven-storming to whispering, carried the evening. The Shostakovich finale is a problem without a solution; each episode has to feel more intense than the previous, but eventually a limit is reached, and the movement becomes undifferentiated and oppressive. These artists somehow found little eddies in the river where they could pull back slightly without actually weakening. Aside from some out-of-tune harmonics on the last page, the piece came off very successfully.  

The Rachmaninoff was a student piece, with little in the way of development, but it is striking for how the young Russian master had already found the dark, brooding voice which pervades all of his later works. Here, the strings mostly took turns, vying to see who could paint the loveliest sunset.

It’s interesting that Isserlis and Bell now play the outer movements of the Ravel noticeably faster than they did as young firebrands in the 1990s, which can’t be only due to having a different pianist. Indeed, the first movement, Modéré, came off as a little impatient to my ears, the dreamy melodies played with one eye open. The high-wire acrobatics in the Pantoum were as child’s-play to these virtuosos, but I was disappointed that Bell didn’t play his aching solo in the slow movement high up on the G-string as Ravel indicated; surely his Strad could’ve taken it.

Two other piano trios with similarly-eminent soloists are appearing in the next few days: the Tetzlaff, Tetzlaff, Vogt Trio at the Library of Congress on Saturday evening (admission is free); and percussionist Colin Curie joins the piano trio comprised of Inon Barnatan, Sergey Khachatryan, and Alisa Weilerstein next Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Tickets are still available for both concerts.

Photo: Shervin Lainez for Strings Magazine