Musical success, even with an uncooperative instrument

Classical Music Critic

When a classical music duo performs together, it is not surprising that it will sometimes happen that one upstages the other. What is unusual is when something upstages them both. Cellist Steven Isserlis and keyboard player Robert Levin were in Hyde Park last week performing the complete works for piano and cello by Beethoven at the Logan Center. These two fine musicians can easily make a splash on their own.

But they were upstaged by a finicky fortepiano.

University of Chicago Presents (UCP) borrowed a fortepiano for the two concerts, and Levin had rehearsed on it with fine results. But when the audience showed up, the instrument broke down. The first of the two concerts found Levin having to stop because the D above middle C was sticking. He even asked the audience if anyone had talcum powder which might serve as a lubricant (who knew?). Later in the concert he took the music stand off the fortepiano and further fiddled with the sensitive device. Still later the proceedings were stopped because a low F key was not sounding. The key of the interrupted piece? F major.

The second concert found Amy Iwano, executive director of UCP, telling the audience before the concert began that “the persnickety piano problems have been solved.”

But they weren’t.

After the first piece Levin had to spend precious minutes adjusting the hammer action, while joking “I’m thoroughly traumatized.” He wasn’t, and the duo once again quickly found their footing.

In spite of all this, Levin and Isserlis ploughed forward both nights, never losing their composure. The crazy keyboard incident is memorable primarily because it didn’t stop this pair from creating two nights of fine music.

The heart of the concerts were Beethoven’s five sonatas for cello and piano, which Isserlis in his program notes explains have at least one written in each of the great composer’s three compositional stages: the early, middle, and late periods. This gave the listener a journey through all the periods of Beethoven’s work.

The pair have recorded these sonatas together and this was evident in their playing. Even the subtlest changes in tempo or volume were completely matched. They were as one with the interpretation of mood and the phrasing of one enhanced the phrasing of the other. In the end, they outfoxed the fox that haunted the keyboard.

Isserlis consistently found the joy in the music and drew it out with exuberance. He caressed the tenderness. He spotted the jokes. Levin, in spite of his instrument’s occasional  lack of cooperation, had pixie-like charm and sparkled in his nimble ability to race up and down the keyboard at whatever speed Beethoven dictated. He gave considered care to the changes in intensity and inflection in long phrases and had some deliciously soft moments. Whether the music was sunny or tragic, wild or gloomy, the two of them expressed great depths of feeling.

The five sonatas were surrounded by three sets of variations on melodies written by other composers plus Beethoven’s own transcription of his Sonata for Horn and Piano.

With audible cheers augmenting great applause and with nearly the entire audience standing in appreciation after the second concert, the pair returned to the stage with what they said was the most appropriate composer for an encore: Bach. They offered a serene reading of “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 639.