Russian Chamber Music 4: Steven Isserlis & Friends

Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op.20
Eight Pieces for Violin and Cello, Op.39 [selection]
Sonata No.1 in F minor for Violin and Piano, Op.80
Trio No.2 in E minor for Piano, Violin and Cello, Op.67

Joshua Bell (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello) & Olli Mustonen (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 14 April, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerThe final part of Steven Isserlis’s invigorating series of concerts of Russian chamber music examined how late Romanticism turned sour in the 20th-century, with warm-hearted pieces from Glazunov and Glière colliding head-on with confrontational wartime works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Isserlis has long had a familiarity with Glazunov’s Opus 20 pieces, recording both in an orchestral version with John Eliot Gardiner in 1989. He has evident affection for their easy charm, shown in the graceful Mélodie, which saw use of stylish portamenti in this performance, and in the spring-like Sérénade Espagnole. In accompaniment, Olli Mustonen’s clipped, spread chords staggered the pulse of this a little, yet this was idiomatic – and the pianist was keenly responsive in both pieces.

Joshua BellAfter an enjoyable curtain raiser, Isserlis and Joshua Bell made an effective mini-suite from four of Glière’s Opus 39 for violin and cello. This comprised a sombre Andante, a lively Gavotte, a graceful Canzonetta and a rumbustious Scherzo. All had considerable melodic interest within their compact forms, yet it was the Gavotte that lingered in the memory, its cheeky persona anticipating the dance form as used by Prokofiev in his ‘Classical’ Symphony.

That composer’s First Violin Sonata is markedly different in emotional and harmonic language. Joshua Bell’s piercing tone, coupled with the harsh timbre of Olli Mustonen’s bare piano octaves, gave the opening Andante an anguish that ran far deeper than the surface. Using the piano lid on its lowest stick, Mustonen was perfectly suited to the percussive nature of Prokofiev’s piano-writing, and the scherzo was truly arresting in its confrontational, bitter outpouring, the two launching a no-holds-barred attack on the music.

The severity of this performance placed the following slow movement in a context of recovery, though the finale renewed hostilities with its toccata-like figurations. As in the first movement, time seemed to stand still with Prokofiev’s self-styled “wind in the graveyard” passage, which provided a chilly respite as Bell hit the glassy top notes. Many performances of Prokofiev’s music try to place the composer as a figure of lighter entertainment and wit, and while he may be that sometimes this was a more comprehensive viewpoint.

The culmination of a series that opened with Glinka’s genial Trio Pathétique was Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, and the change in mood could hardly have been more marked. Isserlis, Bell and Mustonen have played this music together for well over a decade, and their ensemble in the scherzo was stunning, not virtuosic for its own sake but dashing forward with grim humour and no room for sentiment.

Olli MustonenMustonen’s declamation of the ground bass on which the slow movement depends was perfectly phrased and weighted, shifting to become the background reference point for emotive melodies from the string players. The finale was stripped back to its bare bones, the hollow low-register sound from the piano countered by colourless strings, until a thunderous climactic tutti. Occasionally both Isserlis and Bell played very slightly flat, but this seemed an intentional performance device and suited the sentiments of the music. An unmistakable parallel with Prokofiev’s ‘graveyard’ music could be found towards the end from Mustonen – the two works are contemporaneous – until the piece burned itself out to complete a superb performance.

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