The British cellist Steven Isserlis has been an occasional visitor to Boston and to Tanglewood, and in February he returns to Symphony Hall to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra to play Strauss's "Don Quixote" under Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos.
But the alert eye of the Gardner Museum's music director, Scott Nickrenz, noticed Isserlis hadn't played a recital here before, so Nickrenz organized a two-concert survey of the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas with fortepianist Robert Levin that began yesterday afternoon.
The first program included the First and Third Sonatas and a couple of delightful extras -- two sets of variations Beethoven wrote on Mozart's music for Papageno, the immortal bird catcher in "The Magic Flute." Isserlis even looks like a Papageno -- he's got flopsy, mopsy, cottontail hair and an impish appearance; he has written a popular children's book of anecdotes about composers called "Why Beethoven Threw the Stew."
But there is nothing childlike about his playing, which is both earthy and sophisticated -- earthy in that he goes for essentials and doesn't try to sound pretty all the time, sophisticated in his musical intelligence and his technical approach.
He doesn't pour a smooth, textureless puree of vibrato over every phrase, for example; the vibrato comes and goes, and at all degrees of speed and amplitude.
In his hands the cello sings, but it also stabs.
Levin played on a replica of an 1805 Anton Walter 5½-octave fortepiano owned by Harvard University; Levin commissioned it from builder Paul McNulty for his recording of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto with conductor John Eliot Gardiner. It's a remarkable instrument with a wide range of dynamics, colors, and articulations -- or it is responsive to what a musician like Levin asks of it.
Levin has been exploring early instruments for decades. He really plays the fortepiano, rather than playing the fortepiano the same way he'd play a modern piano.
Levin can make it purl like a limpid stream, as he did on the slow keyboard variation of Mozart's "Bei Maennern"; he can make it almost disappear inside the cello's sound. But he can also make it attack like a viper; accents on this piano can be more terrifying than on a modern instrument.
These men are strong musical personalities and not inclined to yield, but they know how to listen and respond to others, so there was both tension and interaction in their work together, and the performance of the Third Sonata, in particular, was enthralling in its varied character, shrewd observation, violence, and fun. Beethoven probably would not have been tempted to throw this stew.