REVIEW Steven Isserlis and MusicaViva by Neville Cohn

a review of Steven Isserlis (cello) and Connie Shih (piano)
by Neville Cohn
on the 10th June 2015
4.5 stars
this review originally appeared in the West Australian

Although Stradivarius is inextricably associated with superbly fashioned violins, his genius extended to cellos as well. And when a Stradivarius cello is played by a master such as Steven Isserlis, the result is music-making of stratospherically high quality. And performing at this level is even further enhanced when the cello line is partnered at the piano by Connie Shih.

Shih, Canadian-born, is phenomenally gifted. She made her concerto debut at the age of nine. This year and in 2016 she will make her concert debuts in Norway and Luxembourg.

In recital, Shih adapts, chameleon-like, to the subtlest nuances of the cello line. She is as convincing in generating massive eruptions of golden sound as in pianissimi that reach the ear as if filtered through layers of fine gauze.

Saint-Saens’ Sonata No 1 in C minor unfolded seamlessly. In the surest of hands, it flashed and glittered into sonic life. And no less admirable was an account of Faure’s rarely heard Sonata No 2. In lesser hands this can so easily come across as an essay in terminal dullness. Not here, though, with Shih in triumphant form and Isserlis with trademark extravagant waving of the bow at movement’s end.

A fascinating offering was a first performance in Perth of British composer Thomas Ades’ Lieux retrouves. It makes ferocious demands on the players. But in inspired hands — as was the case on Monday — it can sound magical, very much the case here as Isserlis and Shih demonstrated the form that places them in the front ranks of chamber musicians.

With fingers that knew few fears, supremely sure and completely in control in horrendously treacherous note streams, Isserlis and Shih focused on microscopic detail without lessening a sharp concentration on the big picture. I particularly admired the command with which the final movement, with its eerily phantas- magoric quality, was negotiated.

It may well have surprised some that Cesar Franck’s famous Violin Sonata in A was also intended to be a work for cello and piano. And it was in this rarely heard latter form that we listened to it on Monday. By even the strictest of critical criteria this was a performance of the highest quality, a frankly magnificent reading by two musicians at the peak of their powers.

This would certainly have been one of the most remarkable and satisfying music events so far this year. What a shame, though, that both galleries and choir stalls were empty: mute testimony to the indifference of too many Perth concertgoers to chamber music at its best.