This winning Russian programme, one of high twentieth-century narrative, has everything going for it. Two charismatic artists at the top of their game relishing playing with and off each other. Two powerful Cello Sonatas. A frankly magnificent Steinway D. Demonstration production standards (Jonathan Allen). Visceral sound engineering of cutting clarity and 'airy' space capturing symphonic climax as much as poetic catharsis (David Hinitt). The sort of release that grips one's imagination right from the first seconds.
Steven Isserlis's penetrating booklet note reminds that “Russian artists … carry story-telling genes in their DNA”: in their youth both Shostakovich and Kabalevsky (slightly older) busked piano in silent-movie picture palaces. “Each of the major works here takes us on a wide-ranging emotional voyage”, he emphasises, “passing from tragedy to grotesquerie, from tenderness to despair.” All but one (Prokofiev's 1912 Ballade) were the product of restrictive, manipulative, persecutional Soviet times, of an invasive political climate when subtexts meant more than foregrounds, of people who could be disloyal one day yet loyal to their conscience the next.
The Shostakovich, written in 1934 just before Pravda's condemnation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a big-boned reading, fearlessly characterised. In a broadcast introduction, misleadingly, the composer called the second movement a “minuet”. Isserlis, understandably, is incredulous: “If it really is a minuet … it [must be] one executed by dancers high on powerful hallucinogenic drugs.” Dispatched in a mere three minutes, it's a ferocious number, the satanic crossed with the Hebraic in ways strikingly anticipating the Second Piano Trio, fiery stamping dance and wild 'fiddle' spiralling hard into the night. Victor Kubatsky's 1971 edition is principally followed in this recording, with inflective additions borrowed from the manuscript (the sul potincello on the return of the opening idea in the second movement; the harmonics at the end of the Largo).
Players oddly bypass Kabalevsky's pre-Cuba crisis Cello Sonata, premiered by Rostropovich in Moscow in February 1962. They shouldn't. It's a major statement of complex personality, torn-apart feelings, extraordinary fantasy (the second movement), and a concluding toccata-like perpetuum mobile of hurtling virtuosity and pianistic bite. In brilliant, hungry form, Isserlis and Olli Mustonen do it glorious justice, taking the music and us by the throat (their Finale knocking a minute off the composer's recording with Rostropovich). These two transcendentalists have never been short of chemistry or electricity. Combined, the voltage is lethal, searingly at one with the intensity and intoxication of the music. When the tolling bell motif from the opening of the work returns at the close – what tale, what memory, does it conceal – the world all but stops. If all you know is the Kabalevsky of the schoolroom, be prepared for a shock.
Of the rarities, Shostakovich's encore-like Moderato, heard posthumously in Hamburg in 1986, is of unclear origin. Found with the (stylistically dissimilar) Cello Sonata autograph, it might date from the 1930s, or possibly even a decade earlier. Prokofiev's Ballade (far more to do with C-minor than the C-major attribution of the booklet) is substantial, the cello part Slavonically vocal and darkly shaded, brooding despite the Allegro marking. The 'Cinderella and the Prince' Adagio from Cinderella, arranged by Prokofiev in 1944, before the ballet's premiere, is harmonically rich and harmoniously opulent, the melodic line full-chested, the piano part grandly eloquent yet not without the passing flutter of a girlish smile. In an album defying superlatives, the performance soars deliriously. Defending Prokofiev in Stalin's 1948 cultural purges, along with Shostakovich, having previously done neither any favours, Kabalevsky's in memoriam Rondo was written as a test-piece for the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition won by Karine Georgian. Isserlis calls it “a handsome tribute from one composer to another.” It is indeed – an intricate portrait in music that's tricky to hold together, as much for cellist as pianist, its contrasts, challenges and colours spanning all levels of encounter, exposure and emotional tension. The realisation is revelatory.
A triumph of a release. With so much passion and adrenalin, you can only wonder how players and crew must have felt at the end of sessions.