Russian Chamber Music 3: Steven Isserlis & Friends

  • Three Pieces from Les Vendredis:
  • Rimsky-Korsakov
    Allegro in B flat
  • Liadov
    Sarabande in G minor
  • Sokolov, Glazunov & Liadov
    Polka in D
    Medtner
    Three Nocturnes, Op.16
    Stravinsky
    The Soldier’s Tale – Suite
    Scriabin
    Romance
    Rachmaninov
    Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.19

  • Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), Martin Fröst (clarinet) & Kirill Gerstein (piano)
    Jerusalem String Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky & Sergei Bresler (violins), Amihai Grosz (viola) & Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]


    Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

    Reviewed: 12 April, 2008
    Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

    Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerThe third concert in Steven Isserlis’s Russian music series was typically well-planned and clearly a labour of love for all concerned. The opening concert had featured music by Taneyev; this programme picked up the thread with music by Medtner and Rachmaninov – both of them pupils of his – alongside music by Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, Rimsky’s most famous student.

    Mitrofan Petrovich Beliaeff founded the St Petersburg publishing house of the same name which had published over 2,000 works by the time of the October Revolution and he established a series of soirées dedicated to the promotion of Russian music. These Friday gatherings became known as “Les Vendredis” and were attended by most of the major composers of the day including Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Beliaeff encouraged joint ventures in composition and in 1899 his publishing house issued a two-volume anthology of 16 pieces for string quartet under the title “Les Vendredis”, several of which were collective efforts. The engaging Polka in D which rounded off the first group is based around an insinuating viola tune by one Sokolov, a Professor of Music Theory, but its second theme is by Glazunov whilst the trio is by Liadov.

    Jerusalem Quartet The Jerusalem Quartet played this bonne bouche with evident affection, rich tone and exemplary balances. The opening Rimsky piece was by far the longest item, a discursive movement lasting some 15 minutes graced by a memorable cello tune; it might well have been by Tchaikovsky for there was nothing of that pseudo-Orientalism which we normally associate with Rimsky. Liadov’s Sarabande is a gravely beautiful exercise in archaism, almost a kind of Russian Pachelbel Canon. The final ‘collective’ Polka proved overlong but the recurring viola solo which threads its way through the piece had the melodic allure of Kalinnikov’s First Symphony.

    The evening’s real find was Medtner’s Three Nocturnes. Medtner’s music, once thought of in the same breath as Rachmaninov and the recipient of enthusiastic support from the Maharajah of Mysore’s Foundation, remains on the periphery of the repertoire. It was once fashionable to disparage him as Rachmaninov without the tunes, a remark Robert Simpson memorably turned round by describing Rachmaninov as “Medtner without the brains”. These three well-contrasted Nocturnes were written for the composer’s violinist brother and are music of real substance, emerging from the shadows yet rising to outbursts of real passion before receding into stillness. Pekka Kuusisto and Kirill Gerstein brought real character to this often-elliptical music – in the first piece the violin is constantly rhythmically at odds with the piano, producing a frequently unsettling effect, whilst the second is archaic in tone with a memorable change of voice at its close. Phrasing with real imagination, Kuusisto produced some ravishingly inflected sotto voce playing, whilst Gerstein’s accompaniment was touched in deep velvet.

    For Stravinsky’s five-movement Suite from The Soldier’s Tale, the combination were joined by the charismatic Martin Fröst who brings to the clarinet the sort of panache which Magnus Lindberg brings to the trombone. The opening ‘Marche du Soldat’ had the kind of swing one expects from Duke Ellington but seldom encounters from classical musicians whilst there was a deadpan wit to the succeeding ‘Violon du Soldat’ and a wonderfully slinky clarinet solo in ‘Petit Concert’. The penultimate movement is a wicked combination of ‘Tango-Waltz & Ragtime’ and both it and the concluding ‘Danse du Diable’ were despatched with utmost relish and bravura.

    The evening’s conclusion brought us a pairing of Scriabin’s brief Romance – played with great poise by Steven Isserlis – and Rachmaninov’s grandly expansive Cello Sonata (1901) which post-dates the Second Piano Concerto by a few months and unsurprisingly inhabits a very similar emotional world. Gerstein and Isserlis were ideal exponents of this glorious but uneven work. Gerstein won the Artur Rubinstein 2001 Award and was selected as Carnegie Hall’s Rising Star for the 2005/6 season. He is a pianist of the highest order and performed the remarkable balancing act of giving full value to Rachmaninov’s demanding piano part whilst never overwhelming his partner. As with Martha Argerich, Gerstein is at home both as a soloist and as a chamber musician.

    Isserlis, playing the Feuermann Stradivarius of 1730, brought glorious tone and an unbroken singing line. This was playing of rare passion and beauty in a work where, rather than complementing each other, cello and piano frequently alternate as the principal focus of attention. Only in the over-extended finale with its clunky key changes and ‘tacked-on’ coda does Rachmaninov seriously disappoint. Elsewhere this is a glorious work and it was gloriously performed.

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