One foresees a comma-ridden explanation after witnessing a headline on a concert ticket with the title “Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and very special guests”. On this occasion the chamber ensemble was not predetermined; or at the very least – not preset. When the exact mould is unavailable during cooking, a rectangular tin can substitute a round one for a Victoria sponge recipe. The effect, nonetheless, is conspicuous. That was the result of this evening.

Steven Isserlis © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Steven Isserlis
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

First came Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata, the Second in D major. For the most part Steven Isserlis seemed to ground his accentuation in the top notes; simmering down in dynamics and drawing these out most of all. While there was a wispy sweetness about such a practice, the grouchy underbelly of tempestuous lower chords in which this instrument thrives was for the most part afloat in the dregs, obscured like sediment. Diminuendi were jerky rather than slow. Occasional notes were played so quickly and with so faint a brushstroke of the bow that they were swiped from our ears. In the second movement one steady tempo took over – glazed with a tiny vibrato. Extended notes in particular seemed unvarying when it came to their resonance. Theirs was not a curved body in the Botticelli-esque form, but one long, barely unchanging bout of sound: the contour of a bamboo stick. Changes from forte to mp took place – but suddenly. Certain notes came off the bow all too eagerly, as though racing to do so. Therefore the tenderness, sentimentality, even fear in this sonata were in large part undetectable.

Joshua Bell’s engagement in the Piano Trio no. 2 in C minor was an immediate cue to add spice to the sonorous palette. His accentuation was fierce, sweet and piquant; in contrast to their must softer counterparts, certain notes were plain pastry compared to the icing – which was bespeckled with cinnamon. There was no doubt that one could hear the passion now. Dynamics wavered on appropriately changing crests; there were few drastic swings in volume here. But this was excitement that faded away rather quickly when the much softer, slower notes intruded. For they were not so much mellifluous as bland. Sometimes they anticipated their launch into louder, frenetic attacks far too early; primed as they were to scurry away. In the second movement a thinner vibrato took over. It was dainty – maybe too much so – and more diffident; and at the same time Bell and Isserlis diverged in their temporal paths. Their different approaches – Bell’s fervent prefigured attacks and Isserlis’ emphasised extenuation of soft notes – did not coalesce quite so well. Pianist Dénes Várjon played throughout the two works in a chomping fashion; ardently but sometimes with disjointed tempi.

The String Quintet no. 1 in A major called for the addition of two more instrumentalists; violinist Arisa Fujita and viola players Amihai Grosz and Rachel Roberts. Yet their respective parts missed out on being highlighted. Behind the spotlight of Joshua Bell’s thickly laid accentuations, much of their playing was sadly eclipsed, although Fujita’s violin exuded a warm undercurrent. Whilst many of Bell’s artistic movements were lavish and kind to the ear, from the ensemble perspective his performance stuck out just as much as a diminished seventh would. At some points in the second movement Bell skipped ahead in the tempo, further widening the absent balance of sound. Even Isserlis, who continued to play zealously on cello, sounded quarantined. And while Roberts and Grosz attempted to allow their violas to percolate in a form of osmosis, the brusque texture of their instruments was only fractionally caught. 

Thus ended the evening of an ensemble, one where little togetherness was effectuated. The concert served mostly to remind us of the extent to which playing in unison is an art in itself – one that inhales its oxygen from a resource that lives entirely separately from any given soloist’s success.