Two titans of the musical world collided with mixed results in a “standing room only” Wigmore Hall as the opening recital in Stephen Hough's Brahms residency. He and Steven Isserlis put together a heavyweight programme of romantic works and one of Hough’s own compositions.

Steven Isserlis © Joanna Bergin
Steven Isserlis
© Joanna Bergin

From the off the strengths and weaknesses of the duo were apparent. Dvorak’s Silent Woods is a short work of simple pleasures. However, it failed to reveal these qualities here, with both artists seeming to be in warming up mode. Likewise, the two Josef Suk miniatures that followed where the more unfamiliar idiom failed to register, despite each work being a delightful microcosm of youthful passion and charm.

The problems didn’t seem to resolve themselves in Brahms' Cello Sonata no. 1 in E minor that followed. A work of illusive and personal emotions, it needs a particular mix of sensitivity and gentle strength to bring out the best in it. The long first movement in particular requires the deepest concentration and structural awareness and there are challenges of balance between the instruments inherent in Brahms’ writing. However, there were moments when the players seemed to be at odds with each other stylistically, Hough adopting a driven hard-edged approach to the more dramatic music and Isserlis not asserting himself sufficiently. The result was a disjointed experience. The Minuet middle movement seemed to find the performers settling down a little more. However, Hough at times seemed to be rushing ahead which didn’t leave the necessary breathing space for the inherent insouciance in the music to fully emerge. The same issues held back the finale from finding its fugal mark.

The best performances followed the interval. Hough’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, left hand (Les Adieux) was originally written for Isserlis in 2013 and is a work of some substance and appeal. With the pared down left hand piano part, problems of balance are solved at a stroke and the memorable impression the piece leaves are of clarity and lucidity of line. Written in a tonal idiom it has echoes of Shostakovich, Sibelius with a touch of minimalism, without ever sounding derivative. There was a palpable rapport between the musicians here. Each element of the piece was presented convincingly, be it the studied introspection of the opening, the build-up of tension in the first section or the strange iciness of the closing passage.

Brahms' Cello Sonata no. 2 in F major seemed to benefit from this positive collaboration. While Brahms had learnt a thing or two about issues of balance in the twenty years since the First Sonata, there also seemed to be more clarity of direction between the duo. The wonderfully stormy opening Allegro vivace was despatched with passion, despite the need to stop halfway through due to a page-turning disaster. The slow movement was the highlight of the whole evening, raptly presented by Isserlis. The driving Scherzo was suitably fiery, with only a hint of hardness of tone from Hough, but the long trio section had full Brahmsian autumnal glow. The finale was as dynamic and exciting as it should be.

To top it all was a suitably fragile and thoughtful late Schumann encore, that almost made up for the mixed bag of performances in the first half. 

***11