Back in 2004, the British cellist Steven Isserlis teamed up with the Boston-based fortepianist Robert Levin for what was, by all accounts, a memorable two-program traversal of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas. Isserlis has called these concerts “something of a milestone in my career,” and these two artists went on to record this repertoire on the Hyperion label.
Happily, the story does not end there. This fall, during his 25th season of curating music at the Gardner Museum, Scott Nickrenz had the good sense to bring back these two artists to reprise their survey. I was not present at the 2004 concert so could not say how their interpretations have grown over the course of the intervening decade. But on its own terms, Sunday’s first installment of this two-part traversal was an inspired showing, an afternoon of chamber music-making at its best, by turns conversational, virtuosic, and poetically charged.
The cello, with its lower register and (in Isserlis’s case) its earthy-sounding gut strings, can’t really compete with a modern Steinway grand, though that hasn’t stopped plenty of performers from approaching this repertoire in precisely this lopsided manner. It was therefore particularly refreshing on Sunday to hear this music presented on fortepiano — in this case, an instrument by Paul McNulty, forthright and full in tone yet scaled to a size that Beethoven would have recognized. It meant that balances were crystal clear, and the instruments blended with a just-right combination of warmth and piquancy.
The sparks flew in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 1 (Op. 5, No. 1) from 1796, which here boasted some daringly fast tempos but without even a hint of a blur in articulation. Levin’s playing conveyed a Mozartean, Sekt-like effervescence, and Isserlis’s cello lines brimmed with spontaneity and musicality in equal measure.
The Cello Sonata No. 3 is dated only 12 years later but it inhabits an altogether different landscape, its melodies darker, riper and fuller, even while exuberance remains undimmed. In Sunday’s superb account, a sense of journey emerged across the movements, in part because expressive needs were allowed to trump the demands of surface tonal beauty. Shiny-edged and immaculate performances of this repertoire are not hard to come by. These artists offered the rarer gift of insight.
Sprinkled across the program were also two sets of variations — here, once again, scintillating — as well as the Sonata in F Major (Op. 17), originally written for piano and horn. The survey concludes on Sunday.
STEVEN ISSERLIS + ROBERT LEVIN
At Gardner Museum, Sunday afternoon