Steven Isserlis & Stephen Hough

Cello Sonata in F, Op.6
Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38
Two Pieces (1899)
Cello Sonata No.2 in F, Op.99

Steven Isserlis (cello) &
Stephen Hough (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 22 October, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

When Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough appear it’s like looking at two throwbacks to the 1970s and 80s: both wear similar clothes, and while Hough’s hairstyle is conventional and he exudes an old-fashioned, clean-cut orthodoxy, Isserlis’s equally-dated long, flowing ringlets perhaps hint at a tempered passion. This contrast continues when they play. Hough is relatively straightforward, sitting upright at the piano with only an occasional sway at more impassioned moments (and eschews excessive rubato and excessive forms of artistic licence). Isserlis, however, sways, tosses his hair about and displays a spectacular range of Byronic facial expressions (and his interpretative approach and sound is rather more extreme than Hough’s). Musically complementary or divisive?

In Richard Strauss’s early and rather undistinguished Sonata, Hough was very direct in the angular first subject – perhaps the finest part of the work – while Isserlis used extreme portamento, on a par with Jacqueline du Pré. With her, however, this grew spontaneously out of an amazing technique and personality, but with Isserlis it sounded contrived. Nevertheless, both performers brought rich textures and phrasing to the romantic second movement, almost succeeding in hiding the fact that it is thematically unmemorable. The finale had plenty of attack, but the fury obscured the bold harmonic changes.

Webern’s two early Pieces, that is pre-dating his official Opus One (the Passacaglia for Orchestra), received similar treatment – lots of swooping and swooning from Isserlis and a compensating coolness from Hough.

Both of Brahms’s cello sonatas were characterised by sudden dynamic contrasts and fluctuating tempos. Hough kept the use of both pedals under strict control and only occasionally came close to swamping the cello, but the downside of this was heard in the slow movement of Opus 99, where greater flexibility would have made the first theme flow more serenely. Isserlis’s approach was more problematic: the phrasing often seemed affected, the attack diffuse, and the overall tone unfocused with too many lapses of intonation. Rather more serious was a lack of spring in the second movement of the E minor sonata and the third of the F major, together with an inability to maintain tension. A decidedly unfocused and under-powered start to the finale of the First Sonata was only partially redeemed by the hell-for-leather conclusion.

In November, Hyperion releases Brahms’s sonatas from these artists.

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