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:

The Borrowers – Robbie Williams: Party Like A Russian

What tune does it use?

The Dance of the Knights from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Arguably Prokofiev’s most famous piece of music, Romeo and Juliet has some fantastic music and tunes – and the Dance of the Knights is one of its most impressive calling cards. It has recently gained extra exposure as the opening titles for the BBC programme The Apprentice.

How does it work?

Williams uses the two heavy bass notes from the start to power the chorus:

A bigger sample gets used for the first chorus:

Then some snippets from later in the dance are incorporated:

The Prokofiev material appears to be replayed throughout, and Robbie adds a big male chorus for some bits, but unfortunately the bluster of verse and chorus, plus some really clunky rhyming (Russian – concussion!), mean the song itself is relatively unmemorable. The posturing in the video takes away from the music – of which Prokofiev’s contribution is arguably the most memorable.

What else is new?

Williams made far more effective use of a sample in his UK no.1 hit from 1998 Millennium, where a loop of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice tied together with a beat and a much more memorable chorus:

Prokofiev is no stranger to pop music, and has been used by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on a number of occasions. Here is their slightly foursquare take on the Dance of the Knights:

A much more effective Prokofiev transcription can be found with their transcription of the Scythian Suite – its second movement, The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits:

Where can I hear more Prokofiev?

The playlist below gives an introduction to Prokofiev’s symphonies and includes his Classical Symphony and Symphony no.5 – with brilliant tunes at every turn:

The second album is music for the stage, a brilliant collection under Claudio Abbado that includes Alexander Nevsky, Lieutenant Kije (with the brilliant Sleigh Ride as used by Greg Lake!) and the Scythian Suite:

Let’s also not forget Peter and the Wolf…here voiced by none other than Alice Cooper in a new version!

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

Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev – Prokofiev Symphonies (3)

valery-gergiev-3

The final instalment of Valery Gergiev’s Prokofiev symphony cycle with the Mariinsky Orchestra shed light on the composer’s late works, and was as illuminating as the previous two concerts in the series.

Late in life Prokofiev’s works took a darker turn, and while his characteristic humour is still present there are more threats in the shadows, particularly where the Symphony no.6 is concerned. This is increasingly regarded as the masterpiece of the seven, and in the right performance it carries a shattering impact.

This was the right performance emotionally, if not always in terms of ensemble. Gergiev has been unfairly criticised this week for fielding unrehearsed performances – there was absolutely no evidence to these ears in the first two concerts of that! – but in the first movement of the Sixth a few things went awry, particularly with extraneous noise from a violin and a number of flat horn solos.

The emotional content, however, was not affected, and as the symphony wore on so did the feeling of impending dread. Brief consolation was offered by the lovely, chant-like theme given to flute and oboe, but the lower end of the orchestra worked hard in punching their rhythms to the front of the performance, the sound of a machine going wrong. As the final movement started its jolly approach soon emptied, and after the brief reappearance of the consoling theme some shattering chords signalled the descent into absolute darkness. It was an incredibly powerful moment from both conductor and orchestra, and no wonder there was a pause before the applause began.

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.6.

The Symphony no.7 has a similarly awkward ending, though here the composer is more resigned to his fate, for illness was now taking over Prokofiev’s life. The lovely unison tune that is the symphony’s calling card was beautifully sung by much of the orchestra, while the quick step theme for the last movement was impishly done, but again the sense of emptiness came through, the ticks and tocks of the final page leaving a sour taste. Prior to this the second and third movements felt like barely finished sketches, but Gergiev characterised them as he would a ballet score. It was a performance notable for its beauty – much of the ensemble problems had been restored – and also its thoughtfulness.

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.7.

Between the two symphonies there was an extraordinary performance of the Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra. This marked the UK debut of the Russian cellist Alexander Ramm, and on this evidence he will be back very soon. His intonation was incredibly secure and his virtuosity almost beyond question, even in the most demanding passages where the cello sits at the very top of its register.
alexander-rammPower, pace and passion were the features of the fast music, but when this briefly relented there was a real depth of feeling to the soaring, chant-like melody of the second movement. Gergiev and the orchestra gave crisp accompaniment, but Ramm was the star for this incredibly assured and most musical performance, redolent of Steven Isserlis in his youth!

Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have given us a Prokofiev season to relish here, reminding us of the composer’s melodic gifts, his flair when writing for orchestra and his good humour. The darker undercurrent beneath these pieces has also been fully explored, revealing Prokofiev in all his guises – occasionally rash, but often deeply profound. It has been a pleasure to be part of the experience.

Ben Hogwood

Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev – Prokofiev Symphonies (2)

Gergiev conducts Prokofiev 2 – Kristóf Baráti (violin), Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev (above)

Cadogan Hall, London; Tuesday 27 September 2016

The second part of this week’s heavyweight Prokofiev triptych was even more rewarding than the first.

Having been blasted into limp submission by the composer’s Second and Third Symphonies – the ‘roaring twenties’ in musical form! – it was time to move into the next decade with the much more delicate Symphony no.4.

Among the seven Prokofiev symphonies this is probably the least understood, partly because it exists in two versions. The first version, heard here, was finished in 1930 and runs for 25 or so minutes. The second, revised version is a different animal altogether, with a bigger orchestra and augmented structure that make the resultant 37-minute work a heavyweight in comparison.

It was rewarding, then, to experience the delicacy and lyricism Gergiev brought to the original score. Based on themes from the ultimately unsuccessful ballet The Prodigal Son, Symphony no.4 was full of grace and shimmering textures, with particularly excellent contributions from flute, oboe and clarinet. The plot of the ballet was on occasion directly imported, so the third movement scherzo was essentially a seduction with imaginative orchestral colour, while the slow movement was both ardent and moving. The outer movements featured a more brash approach, but one that Gergiev held together well.

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.4.

There was then a second chance to enjoy the playing of violinist Kristóf Baráti (below), who if anything outdid his first night performance. His interpretation of the Violin Concerto no.2 (1935) shone brightly, especially in the gorgeous tune of the slow movement, where a light waltz found the Mariinsky Orchestra stripped down to their bare essentials, suiting the Cadogan Hall acoustic perfectly.

The slightly drunk demeanour of the last movement was enjoyable, both violin and orchestra messing about with the rhythms to enhance the off-beat experience, while the first movement, beginning carefully on solo violin, expanded convincingly. Baráti gave us an encore of a movement from the Second solo violin sonata by Ysaÿe, but which time he had comfortably proved his stature as a very fine violinist.

Gergiev saved the best for last, a white hot performance of the Symphony no.5 (1944). On the face of it this work is an affirmative wartime symphony, but like so many pieces by Prokofiev and his contemporary and colleague Shostakovich there is a thinly veiled undercurrent of unease and turmoil. Gergiev found it immediately and pressed home the point throughout, either by making fast tempo choices for the second movement Scherzo and finale, or by deliberately leaning on some of the more painful outbursts of the slow movement.

 

Watch a performance from 2012 of Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in the Symphony no.5.

The Mariinsky orchestra were superb, led once again by some of the most authoritative and technically proficient violinists I have ever seen. Their unity of sound took the breath away at the higher points of Prokofiev’s writing, and was complemented by outstanding contributions from clarinet, flute oboe, trumpet and even orchestral piano. Gergiev could not have overseen a better performance; that it was capped with an encore of Masks from the ballet Romeo and Juliet showed us how close Prokofiev the symphonist and stage composer stayed together throughout his musical life.

Ben Hogwood