Over the weekend, two classical artists who can be counted on to have something to say through music, and say it dynamically, gave recitals in the Baltimore area.
There was a packed house Sunday evening for celebrated English cellist Steven Isserlis, presented by Shriver Hall Concert Series. (Subscribers there perennially favor instrumentalists over vocalists; stellar soprano Danielle de Niese faced a smaller crowd last month.)
The program was also packed -- with sonatas. It would have been nice to hear some shorter, perhaps even lighter pieces in the mix, the way recitalists mixed things up in the old days.
But never mind. The music-making by Isserlis and Canadian pianist Connie Shih was consistently rewarding, so much so that it was possible, almost, to ignore the dry acoustics in this long-overdue-for-an-overhaul hall.
Isserlis started things off in supple form with the cello version of Bach's G major Viola da Gamba Sonata. In addition to all the refined articulation, his endlessly sustained note at the close of the tender third movement was a thing of particular beauty.
Faure's alternately brooding and hopeful D minor Sonata -- Isserlis spoke to the audience about the work's creation during World War I -- received a probing performance; the slow movement inspired richly eloquent playing.
Another slow movement, the one in Martinu's taut Sonata No. 2, likewise benefited from the cellist's exceptional sensitivity to tone and nuance. The poignant stillness during the closing measures seemed to cast a spell on the house. (A recording of the complete Martinu cello sonatas by Isserlis and pianist Olli Mustonen was just nominated for a Grammy.)
In Beethoven's A major Sonata, Isserlis and Shih offered equal parts virtuosity and poetry, then focused solely on the poetry for their encore -- an exquisite account of Schumann's Intermezzo from the F.A.E. Sonata.
A clangy, clunky piano did not do the artist any favors. His avoidance of a true pianissimo all evening didn't help, either. The result was a lot of playing that sounded monochromatic, not to mention aggressive. I would have gladly welcomed more contrasts.
That said, there were terrific moments in the first half of the program, devoted to O'Riley's song arrangements. Radiohead's "Airbag," given bursts of Rachmaninoff-esque surges, hit the spot, as did the pianist's kinetic version of that band's "Paranoid Android."
An overly-spiced, pushy assault on Beach House's "Lazuli" left the song's heart untouched. But O'Riley provided Elliott Smith's "True Love" a neatly textured treatment and made Reid Anderson's "People Like You" a mesmerizing, hip-jazz experience.
The Russian second half of the recital included two pieces from 1913. Scriabin's darkly shaded Sonata No. 9 was effectively shaped. Rachmaninoff's towering Sonata No. 2 -- O'Riley champions the original version of the score -- received a bold performance. A little too bold in places, where the rush and thunder of notes obscured some of the finer details in the music, but it sure was invigorating.
So was the nimbly articulated encore, "La Rayuela" by nuevo tango master Pablo Ziegler.