It says something for his commitment to the repertoire that Steven Isserlis has chosen to re-record the three cello sonatas of Bohuslav Martinů. Though it also perhaps says something for the deceptive passage of time that his previous recording, with pianist Peter Evans, was taped as long ago as January 1988 and released on Hyperion CDA66296 but can now be found on Helios CDH55185. Over 25 years separates the two traversals and there’s plenty that can be said about the changes in approach between the two, as well as the advances made in SACD sound quality.
The most obvious changes are a rethink, on the cellist’s part, with regard to the density of expression and speed of the slow movements. The other is a greater plosive quality to his attacks. Together this very definitely realigns the interpretative nature of the music-making. I sense that early in his career Isserlis was rather more in thrall to expected norms of Czech players in this repertoire – Josef Chuchro, principally, and his colleague, the pianist Josef Hála. Even if this is not the case, the gravitational pull of the slow movements that was so audible in the Hyperion recording has shifted in favour of an equality between the three movements of each sonata. In short, taking the slow movements faster, and vesting the outer movements with greater resinous energy, brings to them a more forceful, uneasy quality.
This is most clear in the earliest sonata, composed in 1939. It is testy, urgent, incessant, and whilst the slow movement doesn’t sound rushed, it is a full minute quicker than the 1988 recording. Olli Mustonen’s detonatory playing in the finale is consonant with Isserlis’ conception; the powerfully accented playing underscores the work’s unsettled, militant qualities. The Second Sonata transmits controlled power throughout, and the duo skilfully avoid making the slow movement sound too rushed through well-judged phrasing – though it is a basically very fast tempo in context. Note how Isserlis withdraws his tone. Note too Mustonen’s doleful tolling figures. The Third Sonata, like his Third Violin Sonata, is the most exuberant and free of the trio. There is a culminatory, even triumphant feel to the finale, a movement from darkness to the light. Ironically it was written for cellist and conductor Hans Kindler’s memorial service, though as Isserlis relates in his notes Kindler asked for a celebration, not a wake. In any case it provides a rewarding trajectory for these three important cello sonatas.
Rather than add other works by the composer the duo play Mustonen’s own 2006 Sonata, a four-movement work that sometimes seems to evoke those off-beat Martinů tropes. It’s a thoroughly engaging work, well contrasted and effective, and this is its first recording. Sibelius’ Malinconia
completes the recital, an intense and powerful piece, played with appropriate qualities by both men.
In terms of improved recorded sound, of a more sharply delineated conception, and of an equality between both instrumentalists, this cycle of the sonatas is probably superior to the 1988 one – though that too retains great virtues and I remain appreciative of Evans’ pianism. There have inevitably been changes in the cellist’s conception of these works, and that is faithfully reflected in the two recordings. I can’t do without the less obviously athletic playing of Chuchro and Hála, whose more broadly-based conception stresses other qualities in the music, and remains vividly impressive. Nevertheless for a top-notch, intense recording Isserlis and Mustonen take some beating.
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