Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen at the Wigmore Hall – A Revolutionary cello recital

Steven Isserlis (cello) and Olli Mustonen (piano)

Prokofiev Ballade, Op.15 (1912)
Mustonen Chanson russe & Danse Oriental (1995)
Kabalevsky Cello Sonata in B flat major Op.71 (1962)

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 29 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A chamber concert with revolution in the air. This carefully chosen recital was short and to the point, but contained some deeply meaningful music lying just outside of the normal repertoire for cello and piano. Just before Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen played an early Sibelius Waltz as their encore, the cellist explained the programme’s themes of revolution, both in Russia and Finland.

They began with a startling performance of Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, startling in the sense that this music was brought to life with an intensity rarely experienced in this or any of the composer’s music. Isserlis was at his probing best, particularly in the pizzicato sections, but Mustonen took the lead, bringing out the composer’s phrasing as only he can, with heavily weighted emphasis on the most important harmonic notes. Thus the piece became a Ballade in the truest sense of the word – dark, passionate and stormy.

Mustonen’s joining of links between his own Finland and Russia was next, the Chanson russe surprising in its simplicity, which was touchingly effective, before a whirlwind Danse Oriental that could have been contemporaneous with the Prokofiev. It made a highly effective concert piece, and both performers clearly enjoyed it.

The most substantial piece was Kabalevsky’s Cello Sonata, written perhaps inevitably for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1962. With some of the Rostropovich dedications the cellist’s spirit hangs heavily over the music, and it was easy to imagine his larger than life projections of the melodies. While Isserlis may not have the sheer volume of the late Russian (who does?!) he has sensitive phrasing and a lovely tone at his disposal, and, at the beginning of the second movement, produced a feather-light touch on the tremolos that sent a shiver down the spine.

Again it was satisfying to experience a piece packed full of melody, and with more harmonic sleights that Mustonen inevitably brought to the fore. The style could be viewed as a hybrid of Prokofiev and Shostakovich – no bad thing, certainly! – and the main melody, which reappeared at the end, had a harmonic twist and simplicity that pulled subtly at the heartstrings.

The major-minor subtleties of the writing were fully explored, and while Mustonen often took the lead rhythmically this felt wholly appropriate. Kabalevsky is a composer whose music works well in the concert hall, with memorable tunes, a sense of humour and pockets of unexpected poignancy. It is less obviously weighted than Prokofiev but extremely enjoyable on its own terms.

Gratifyingly, Isserlis and Mustonen explored those qualities to the full, and with their virtuosity and drive they gave the composer the best possible advocacy. The Sibelius waltz, known as the Lulu Waltz, was economy itself, over in a minute – but leaving a strong impression.

Further listening and reading

Unfortunately this concert is not available online, but you can hear the premiere recording, made by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with the composer at the piano, on the Spotify link below:

In addition the Kabalevsky Cello Concertos are highly recommended – and they can be heard in these recent recordings by Torleif Thedéen and the Hannover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eiji Oue:

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