Memory is an imperfect phenomenon, distorting events so that insignificant details are highlighted and hours are compressed into a single image. That mutability is famously explored by Marcel Proust in his landmark novel Remembrance of Things Past, and served as a unifying theme for the performance of pianist Jeremy Denk, OC ’90, and cellist Steven Isserlis, OC ’80, performance on Tuesday, the first installment of this semester’s Artist Recital Series.
The theme of mutable memory first emerged in the program. Denk and Isserlis presented a nostalgic concert of French chamber works from La Belle Époque, when, at the turn of the 19th century, Parisian salons showcased a flourishing arts scene. Proust matured in those salons and would have heard some of the works performed by Denk and Isserlis, perhaps played by the composers themselves. He was even a lover of Reynaldo Hahn, whose Variations chantantes sur un air ancien opened the program.
Variations was relatively obscure, languishing unperformed for 70 years, until Isserlis rediscovered the score in England. For his air ancien, Hahn tapped into music’s long memory and used a melody from the 17th century. Instead of radically altering the theme, Hahn kept it recognizable and added filigree and rhythmic invention. Isserlis’s unique interpretation of Variations became visible when he released his cello and lovingly drew out open-stringed notes with both hands.
Variations was followed by Gabriel Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 117. Written in 1921, the sonata came from a period in Fauré’s life that could be titled “Remembrance of Sounds Past,” as he was by then completely deaf. The loss of hearing is evident in his later music, which is sparser and occupies a weird harmonic space. Throughout the piece, Denk shone in his ability to endow the simplest accompaniments with an exquisite beauty. His minute gradations of tone in the solemn second movement heightened the melody’s incredible sense of loss, while its poignancy lay in the restraint of any excessive emotion. That sadness was dismissed in the third movement, in which Denk and Isserlis expertly executed hairpin shifts from striving figures to playful flurries of notes.
Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was a direct influence on Thomas Adès’s piece Lieux retrouvés, written for Isserlis, who he recently recorded it for Hyperion. In Lieux, Adès attempts to capture the feeling of a place in music in the same way that Proust does in literature. The tempestuous first movement depicts mercurial water that eddies, whirls and ends in the pizzicato crash of a wave. Pizzicato then becomes an important feature of the next movement; Jazzy rhythms are shattered by falling boulders in the bass of the piano, while jagged lines sketch craggy mountaintops. In the tranquil third movement, an unadorned melody from the cello floats into the stratosphere on the cello, eventually dissipating among the twinkling stars of the piano. A “Cancan macabre” in the last movement brutally bashes into walls, stumbles over feet and boorishly romps to an abrupt conclusion. Both performers carried off the incredibly technical music with ease.
Camille Saint-Saëns’s rhapsodic Romanza from the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 123, which opened the second half of the program, follows an expressive cello line through a variety of moods and textures. Isserlis played passionately over over Denk’s perfectly balanced performance.
The last work was the hyper-Romantic Violin Sonata in A Major, originally composed by César Franck and arranged for cello by Jules Delsart. A recurring theme throughout the piece grounds the listener in the third movement, a fantasia reminiscent of the Saint-Saëns Romanza in its unexpected shifts. The fourth movement brought the program back full circle as it echoed the first movement of the Franck sonata: In both movements, the melody is played by both the piano and cello, but offset by one measure.
The encore, Saint-Saëns’s Romance for cello and piano, Op. 36, encapsulated La Belle Époque with its light, elegant serenade. Memory and its distortions are well suited for a concert theme. Just as it is often the small details that are most vivid in retrospect, a truly great performance is distinguished by tiny moments of beauty. On Tuesday, Denk and Isserlis uncovered those moments and exhibited them marvelously.