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

Steven Isserlis – revisiting Elgar and discovering Walton

steven-isserlisCellist Steven Isserlis is one of Britain’s best-loved classical artists – loved for his highly respected interpretations of the cello repertoire, but also for his open, honest and enthusiastic approach to classical music.

Isserlis, an author of books introducing children to the likes of Beethoven, Handel and Schumann, generously donated time to talk to Arcana about the roots of his love of the cello, his new disc of Cello Concertos by Elgar and Walton and his new work as an author.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I can’t remember a time without music! From the time I remember anything, my sisters were already learning instruments, and I used to go to sleep at night to the sound of my father practising the violin and my mother the piano.

How did you develop a love of the cello?

My sister Rachel played the violin, and my elder sister Annette was always going to play the viola. So a cellist was needed – that would be me. So my parents took me to a local teacher, and – after a false start at the age of four or five – I began lessons from the age of six. I think my love for the cello developed as I came to realise that if I played OK I could be the centre of attention!

What was it like returning to record Elgar’s Cello Concerto? Was it invigorating in the company of someone (the conductor Paavo Järvi) who may not have encountered the composer’s music so much?

Well, I’ve played the Elgar so many times over the 25+ years since I first recorded it that it seemed a good idea to record it again. It’s true that Paavo needed a bit more persuading than he did for our Prokofiev / Shostakovich disc, but not much more; he’s always up for a challenge.

Was it your aim to bring out a little more of the humour in the last movement of the Elgar, given the relative darkness around it? It also feels a little quicker than your first recording of the concerto.

It was not a conscious aim – I really didn’t think about (or listen to) the earlier recording. But yes, there is humour in parts of the last movement – which for me throw the tragedy into even sharper relief.

This is the first time you have recorded the Walton (I think!) I’m assuming you knew it very well before, but what effect did it have on you in the recording process?

I’m not sure it had any particular effect on me ‘in the recording process’, but I’d been wanting to record it for some years, since I feel passionately about it. I always name the Schumann, Dvorak, Elgar and Walton concertos as the four very greatest cello concertos (though I’d be bereft without those of Haydn, C.P.E. Bach, Boccherini, Saint-Saëns, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Dutilleux etc).

It feels like a very romantic piece, with sighing melodies and deeply felt thoughts. Given your booklet note for the release, is that how you would view it?

Definitely – romantic, poetic, impassioned, magical.

The Gustav and Imogen Holst pieces make fascinating complements. Do you think people are in neglect of just how adventurous Gustav’s music could be?

Perhaps. To my shame, I know very little of it. But I love Invocation, maybe especially so since I had something of a part in its rediscovery.

What do you remember of Imogen Holst as a person, and of the piece here? Her ‘Presto’ seems to me (a bit of wishful thinking I’m sure!) to depict birds chasing each other in the reeds at Aldeburgh.

I remember Imogen as a wonderfully quaint personality who was also sharp as a stainless steel razor! Wonderful. I’ve always thought of the Presto as depicting leaves flying around in a storm. Recently I was sent a note by the work’s dedicatee, Pamela Hind O’Malley, apparently written with Imogen’s approval, which describes it as ‘the scuttering of leaves in a high wind’. I like that word ‘scuttering’!

I understand you have just completed a book – are you able to tell us more about it at this stage?

It’s advice for young musicians – incorporating and updating Schumann’s book of the same name. I suppose that means that I’m now an old musician – groan…

Is it important for you to communicate to people, young and old, in a language that brings classical music to everybody?

Absolutely! And I enjoy playing for children, as well as writing for them – it can be tremendous fun.

Do you think classical music should do more to get the music beyond its ‘inner circle’, so to speak?

Well, yes – but not if that means distorting it, or promoting sugary crossover stuff. Classical music doesn’t need that!

You can hear extracts from the new Steven Isserlis disc of cello concertos by Elgar and Walton, released by Hyperion Records, here – including shorter pieces by Gustav Holst – his Invocation – and his daughter Imogen, a short suite for solo cello The Fall of the Leaf.

Meanwhile forthcoming concerts from the cellist are listed on his website

Steven Isserlis and friends – Czech chamber music

czech-chamber-music
Fate by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, 1920

Jeremy Denk (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Steven Isserlis (cello), Wigmore Hall, 20 May 2015.

As Steven Isserlis wrote so eloquently in the program notes for this concert, ‘Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?’

This, the first of two parts, revealed a quartet of composers intent on spoiling the listener with a mass of tunes (teacher Dvořák and pupil Suk) or using their music to express the highly charged climate in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (Janáček and, from a distance, Martinů)

Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Lawrence Power planned this concert to perfection, the abundance of tunes placed first and last, with the deeper moments in between.

It is doubtful Suk’s Piano Quartet, the first published piece of a precocious seventeen year old, has ever had a performance like this, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. After a forthright statement of the first tune from the ensemble, a beautiful solo from Isserlis revealed the work’s softer underbelly, which came to the fore in a similarly affecting tune in the slow movement, the cello releasing a beautiful mellow sound.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata wore a permanently furrowed brow. The icy reach of the muted violin in the last of the four brief movements was key to summing up a work that bristles with anger, though redemption was briefly found in the second movement Balada, with a theme of silvery consolation.

The second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů was next. Isserlis has championed these works for more than 25 years, and gave a commanding performance of a moving work. Written in America in 1938, the composer having successfully fled Paris and the Nazis, it is a deeply felt and resilient utterance, especially in the second movement where time stood still.

As far as the tunes were concerned, the best was saved until last. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet no.2 positively bursts with Czech melodies – which are revealed to be surprisingly close in mood and contour to the American tunes he was to use towards the end of his career. Here they were swept along in a wonderful performance of good feeling, played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Denk, whose phrasing was key to the utmost charm of the Scherzo, the tender Adagio and the rustic finale.

Yet this was music for a team of friends to enjoy, the music surging forwards with a positivity rarely experienced to this extent in the concert hall – and happily caught by microphones, hopefully for a future release on Wigmore Hall Live. Those Czechs, they knew a good tune – and these four were the best possible Bohemian Rhapsodists in waiting!

The music from this concert can be heard here on Spotify. Part two of this series is at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23 May, and will include the Dvořák Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio by Smetana.