Cel­list Steven Isserlis shows guts in Bach

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - — Charles T. Downey style@wash­post.com Downey is a free­lance writer.

Cel­list Steven Isserlis plays on gut strings rather than the stan­dard con­tem­po­rary me­tal ones, a pref­er­ence that lim­its his dy­namic range at the loud end of the spec­trum, but to which he re­mains de­voted. The sound of gut strings has a “more hu­man qual­ity,” he said dur­ing a con­cert at Wolf Trap in 2013. Al­though he is not known prin­ci­pally for his­tor­i­cally in­formed per­for­mance (HIP), he does col­lab­o­rate with early mu­sic en­sem­bles and spe­cial­ists, like the fortepi­anist Robert Levin, with whom he will play Beethoven’s cello sonatas at the Kennedy Cen­ter on Oct. 29.

An­other ex­am­ple is his new disc with harp­si­chordist Richard Egarr, the first record­ing Isserlis has made with that in­stru­ment. The fo­cus is the three sonatas Bach des­ig­nated for vi­ola da gamba and harp­si­chord ob­bli­gato (BWV 1027 to 1029), pieces that have been played by cel­lists for a long time. The ap­proach here is nei­ther mod­ern­iz­ing nor HIP-ob­sessed. Since Bach him­self adapted at least one of th­ese pieces from his own trio sonata (now num­bered as BWV 1039), the ver­sions for vi­ola da gamba and harp­si­chord seem de­signed to en­cour­age adap­ta­tion to other in­stru­ments.

What­ever the record­ing’s his­tor­i­cal mer­its, Isserlis moves even fur­ther into an in­tro­spec­tive ex­plo­ration of his beau­ti­ful, voice­like tone, mak­ing the cantabile slow move­ments a par­tic­u­lar de­light. The fi­nal track, an ar­range­ment of Bach’s cho­rale pre­lude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” from the “Orgel­büch­lein,” shows off Isserlis’s ar­dent legato in an in­tensely prayer­like way. Isserlis is oc­ca­sion­ally im­pa­tient with the fast move­ments, rush­ing the pace slightly, the only place where his tone can de­volve into an un­seemly growl now and again.

Isserlis is not es­pe­cially con­cerned with his­tor­i­cal au­then­tic­ity in any case. He has adapted the other works on this disc from vi­o­lin sonatas by Domenico Scar­latti and Han­del, play­ing the main melody him­self with a sec­ond cel­list, Robin Michael, on the con­tinuo part. In a rather twee book­let es­say, Isserlis ad­dresses his de­ci­sion to re­peat a sec­tion of the last move­ment of the Scar­latti by ad­mit­ting that there is no ev­i­dence either to sup­port or to counter it. That re­peat sets off the charm­ing dance in the mid­dle, high­lighted by Egarr’s use of a soft, lute-like stop on the harp­si­chord. As Isserlis puts it, “it just seems to work,” and in­deed it does.

BACH HAN­DEL SCAR­LATTI, GAMBA SONATAS Steven Isserlis and Richard Egarr

LOUIS MOREAU GOTTSCHALK: A NIGHT IN THE TROP­ICS Steven Mayer

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