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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Cello Sonata No 1, H277 [16:09]
Cello Sonata No 2, H286 [18:15]
Cello Sonata No 3, H340 [18:03]
Olli MUSTONEN (b.1967)
Cello Sonata (2006) [14:51]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Malinconia, Op. 20 [10:55]
Steven Isserlis (cello); Olli Mustonen (piano)
rec. January 2013, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
BIS BIS-SACD-2042 [78:15]

This CD recommends itself. Cellist Steven Isserlis has recorded Martinů’s three excellent sonatas. His accompanist is composer Olli Mustonen, a master of the idiom who also contributes his own recent sonata to the program. There’s another substantial bonus in Malinconia, a powerfully dark cello piece by Jean Sibelius. It’s all recorded in a hybrid SACD by the BIS engineers.
 
Those facts alone make it an important release. I feel like my job is simply to let you know that the album exists, so you can look for it. In case you need to read anything else, Isserlis delivers the goods in his usual highly impassioned, expressive style; consider the Sibelius piece, which dates from 1900 but foreshadows the grim, violent power of the Fourth Symphony. It was written after the death of the composer’s daughter, and makes the listener share his grief.
 
Isserlis writes useful, detailed notes on the fifteen-minute sonata Olli Mustonen composed, which fits into the program well. That is to say, it shares with Martinů a focus on emotional ambivalence and internal conflict, plus excellent craftsmanship. The second movement is a sort of scherzo-in-reverse, slower material bookending an incredibly virtuosic, spinning cello part. We then get the real scherzo, and a finale that at last offers us a long, breathtaking melody teased upward into the highest notes Isserlis can play.
 
The three Martinů cello sonatas are from late in his career, the first two dating from 1939 and 1941. The first sonata cycles through many moods, with a haunting slow movement that the booklet rightly calls “funereal.” It was premiered by a dream team: Pierre Fournier and Rudolf Firkusný. The second sonata has a lot in common with his symphonies: the opening piano statement sounds reduced from an orchestral original, and the main melodies could have been deployed in the Third or Fourth symphonies. There’s masterful drama in the dialogue and conflict between these instruments; it’s a troubled, brilliant piece that alternates between easy lyricism and abrupt outpourings, with a hint of triumph in the finale.
 
The third sonata is the most lyrical, and the happiest, with the shadows of wartime years into the past. The finale in particular is a joy, with an unexpected baroque-style piano cadenza. It provides an affirming conclusion to the recital. BIS’s sound is as excellent as ever, and Mustonen and Isserlis have an easy chemistry. Isserlis reports in his liner notes that they’ve been friends since they pulled pranks on one another in school days, and I wonder if the cover photo is another prank. Either way, I hope it’s not the last of this partnership on record. This disc is outstanding, just as you’d expect.
 
Brian Reinhart