Bring some Beethoven. That seems to be the chief instruction given to the many outstanding soloists, ensembles and orchestras who have been visiting the southern Minnesota city of Winona for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival for 17 summers.

On Sunday afternoon, this year's three-week festival took flight with a recital by one of the world's most acclaimed cellists, Englishman Steven Isserlis, accompanied by the Canadian pianist Connie Shih. And there was indeed Beethoven on this program — two of his five cello sonatas — but the most impressive interpretations were of a 1922 sonata by French composer Gabriel Fauré overflowing with emotion and arresting lyricism and a 2009 piece English composer Thomas Adès wrote for Isserlis that proved both evocative and abstract.

Isserlis is among the most respected of recitalists, and, for Sunday's recital, he collaborated with Shih on five works from four centuries, traveling in chronological order. Representing the 18th century was young Beethoven, who sounded very much in the style of Mozart on his Second Cello Sonata.

It proved more of a showcase for Shih than Isserlis, as her hypnotically meditative opening strains proved to be merely lighting the fuse on the fireworks that followed. She executed all of the work's furious flourishes skillfully while Isserlis was entrusted with sending the melody skyward above them, the two of them finally prancing playfully together on the finale.

Beethoven's Fourth Cello Sonata came considerably later in his life, when the composer was pairing the instruments to express the adventurous ideas crowding his head. This time, Isserlis was the one embodying the composer's stormy spirit, aggressively attacking his cello with a thrusting bow and flying fingers, his curly silver mane tossed about. And Shih matched him well in energy and interpretive depth.

France of the early 20th century produced two works on the program, starting with three short pieces by celebrated pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. They provided a fine forum for Isserlis' full tone and fleet fingers, but the recital's showstopper was Fauré's Second Cello Sonata.

Which was surprising because Fauré's music rarely goes out of its way to draw attention to itself. But he was a wonderfully expressive writer, and this sonata offered the concert's best opportunities to experience Isserlis' gracefully flowing phrasing and the kind of sonic journey into the heart of melancholy that only a cello can produce. And the soloist was never more athletic than on the lightning-fast finale.

While most programs insert the 21st century between the crowd-pleasers, Isserlis saved for last a piece by Adès that he premiered in the composer's company in 2009, "Lieux retrouvés." While of quite a different sound world than all that preceded it, it was no less eloquent in communicating a complex emotional landscape. A movement inspired by water sounded as deep and turbulent as the Mississippi that was overflowing its banks nearby, while a poetic evocation of fields found Isserlis ascending into the sonic stratosphere in haunting whispers.

With an encore of J.S. Bach — a cello transcription of a vocal movement from his Cantata 167 — Isserlis and Shih wrapped the audience in warm comfort, sending any Twin Cities-bound attendees back upriver with a wistful appreciation for the beauty around them.

Minnesota Beethoven Festival

With: Violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Awadagin Pratt, string trio Time for Three and others.

When: Through July 21.

Where: Four venues in Winona, Minn.

Tickets: $25, available at

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at