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:

Wigmore Mondays – Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen in Prokofiev, Schumann and Mustonen

steven-isserlis-olli-mustonen

Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano) (both above)

Schumann 3 Romances, Op 94 (1849) (11 minutes); 3 pieces from Album für die Jugend, Op 68: Sheherazade; Winterszeit I & II (1848) (9 minutes)

Olli Mustonen Frei, aber einsam (UK premiere) (2014) (4 minutes)

Schumann arr. Isserlis Intermezzo from F.A.E sonata (1853) (3 minutes)

Prokofiev Cello Sonata in C, Op 119 (1949) (23 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 2 November

Arcana’s commentary

Schumann is arguably Steven Isserlis‘ favourite composer. The clues are there in the enthusiasm with which the cellist talks about his music, the affection he gives to each of the melodic lines, and in this concert the construction of an imaginative suite of works for cello and piano, where his natural and extremely intimate lyrical side was to the fore.

Schumann did not write a fully-fledged sonata for cello and piano, but he did complete a number of pieces either directly for the combination or in a form that could be naturally arranged. Such is the case with the 3 Romances, published for oboe and piano as Schumann’s Op.94 but making a seamless transition to the cello.

In this performance the first Romance (from 1:47 on the BBC iPlayer) is a little doleful, the second (from 5:22) is notable for a relatively stormy central section, while the third (9:13) brings the instruments together in thoughtful unison.

After this Isserlis sat head bowed, listening intently as Olli Mustonen performed pieces from Album for the Young as though he and the listener were the only two people in the room. The first piece is Sheherazade (from 13:19), finding the level of intimacy that Schumann’s pieces for the young so consistently achieve, then from 17:10 we hear Winterszeit I and then the changing moods of Winterszeit II (19:01)

Mustonen himself then turns composer, with Frei, aber einsam (from 22:06), a piece for Isserlis alone written with the grace and intimacy of Schumann. It also has a bit of his childlike mischief when it gathers confidence – rather like a bird emerging from the nest – and starts flying along.

Mustonen uses the notes F-A-E as his starting point – which offers a strong like to the next work, heard from 26:46 we hear a tender performance of an arrangement of Schumann’s Romance for the collaborative FAE Sonata, a work written in tandem with Brahms (who contributed the famous Scherzo) and Albert Dietrich. It uses the notes ‘F-A-E’ in the simplest possible way – but also the most personal.

Following this attractive suite is the Cello Sonata of Prokofiev. Typically for the Russian composer this is full of good tunes, and in this performance (from 32:26) Isserlis and Mustonen bring them all to life in a vivacious performance. Isserlis had his way with the audience in the hall, too, with a few glances that sent up the more humourous moments of the second movement perfectly (from 42:46). There is music of romantic power, too, whether in the powerful climax of the first movement (at 41:11) or in the big finale (from 47:27) which sweeps impressively through its return to the main tune at 51:47.

A wonderfully affirming concert ends on a sad note with a tribute to the late conductor and violinist Sir Neville Marriner, the face of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who passed away the day before at the age of 92. Isserlis chose the second of Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style (from 56:42), and with Mustonen proceeded to give a touching and affectionate encore.

Further listening

For more music related to this concert, try the Schumann and the FAE playlist on Spotify below. This includes the whole of the collaborative FAE Sonata, the oboe and piano version of the 3 Fantasy Pieces in a wonderful recording from Heinz Holliger and Alfred Brendel and, to finish with, a rare recording of the Cello Sonata no.1 by Myaskovsky. He was the composer who raved about Prokofiev‘s Cello Sonata after its early performances – so here is his own moment in the sun:

by Ben Hogwood