Romance oubliée, S132
Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, S382
Die Trauergondel ‘La lugubre gondola’, S134
Sonata No.2 in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.117
For Steven: In Memoriam Pauline Mara
Pilinszky János: Gérard de Nerval
György Kroó in memoriam
Steven Isserlis (cello) & Thomas Adès (piano)
Recorded 13-15 December 2011 in Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, Monmouthshire, UK
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: December 2012
CD No: HYPERION CDA67948
Duration: 77 minutes
This intriguing and seemingly unrelated choice of works is an examination of the strongest influences behind the music of Thomas Adès, and culminates in a performance of a work from the composer-pianist, Lieux retrouvés (Places rediscovered), which gives this release its title. As an accompaniment the booklet note includes conversations between the two protagonists, explaining how the music of Liszt, Fauré and Kurtág unexpectedly cohabit the same disc.
Romance oubliée falls nicely into the cello range in Liszt’s revision from the original for viola and piano, and Steven Isserlis gives the phrases time to unfold. The melodic inflections of Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth’ are nicely done, too. Adès’s observation that Liszt takes you to a different place is borne out with the harmonies at the end of this song and the start of La lugubre gondola. This remains one of Liszt’s most adventurous pieces harmonically, and this second version, again in the composer’s arrangement for cello and piano, builds to a foreboding climax.
Janáček, one of Adès keenest influences, proves ideal for this partnership, with Isserlis enjoying the story telling of Pohádka. The pair plays Janáček’s final revision from 1923; they generate terrific energy in the faster music, finding room to express the enchanted nature of the characteristically expressive love themes.
Adès praises Fauré’s late works – the Second Cello Sonata being one – as having “a unique quality of inner illumination and rapture”. The first movement flows like an unstoppable stream, never letting up in its momentum. The Andante takes time to reflect, sharing a similar timing to Isserlis’s first recording of the work, also for Hyperion, with Pascal Devoyon in 1986. At this slower tempo it harks back to the Élégie in C minor (Opus 24). The cellist has total command of the intense, longer phrases. In the finale Adès impresses with the surety of his octaves, as well as his detailed unpicking of some of the composer’s more complex piano-writing, and there is a sense of joyful exuberance at the end.
Isserlis then plays four pieces by György Kurtág for solo cello. For Steven is the composer’s response to the news of the death of Isserlis’s wife Pauline in 2010. It is an eerie utterance, the soft breaths of the cello in double-stopping just over a minute in rather like rasps of the human respiratory system. Typically for Kurtág, this is music of great concentrated, so too in the remarkable, flute-like sounds at the end of the short Pilinszky Janós: Gérard de Nerval, an interpretation of the poem. Schatten needs a very quiet room to work its magic, its muted sounds barely audible like feathers falling to earth. György Kroo In memoriam is similarly soft of breath, though here the longer note values draw the piece out to almost unparalleled intensity. Isserlis is completely faithful to the music and inside its technical and emotional demands.
And so to Lieux retrouvés, described by Isserlis as “the hardest piece I have ever learned, especially the last movement”. He candidly writes of how he refused the commission on these grounds, but determined not to be beaten returned to master it technically. Adès talks briefly of how “the cello of all instruments makes one dream of Elsewhere” – and the first movement, ‘Les eaux’, appears to draw on the Liszt pieces already heard. Isserlis covers quite some ground in what sounds like a fiendish passage of multiple-stopping. The demands of ‘La ville: Cancan macabre’ are somehow met, using the extremities of the cello register in music that is little short of a riot. ‘La montagne’ is more directly pictorial, the pizzicato vividly representing the crunch of mountaineers’ footsteps in the snow. Isserlis kills these notes almost as soon as they appear, so that they are both sonorous and broken off. A thunderous two chords at the end represent the planting of a flag at the summit. ‘Les champs’ uses high, wispy notes like cirrus clouds to describe the ascent of animals’ breath in a field at night. A strange subject, perhaps, but the composer describes it with uncanny accuracy.
This is a highly rewarding journey through 130 years of music that proves what imaginative planning and thematic threads can do. With a natural recording that has slightly more reverberation for the solo works, it is a disc for composers, performers and listeners alike.