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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C, Op. 3 (1829-30) [9:03]
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 (1845-47) [30:32]
Nie ma czego trzeba (I Want What I Have Not), Op. 74 No. 13 (1845) arr. Isserlis [3:34]
Auguste FRANCHOMME (1808-1884)
Nocturne in C minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 15 No. 1 (1838) [4:27]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata in A minor 'Arpeggione', D821 (1824) [25:54]
Nacht und Träume, D827 (1822 or 1823) arr. S Isserlis [3:45]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Dénes Várjon (piano)
rec. 2017 at the Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, Wales
HYPERION CDA68227 [77:21]

This imaginatively planned disc links Chopin and Schubert. Though they never met it is fascinating to imagine that they would almost certainly have done so had the latter not died a miserable. untimely death in 1828, a fate Chopin would share twenty years later. The programme contrasts two sonatas: Chopin’s only such work for an instrument other than piano is coupled with Schubert’s piece for the short-lived bowed guitar-type contraption, the Arpeggione, a masterpiece that has outlived the source of its inspiration and is nowadays usually rendered on the cello or viola. Steven Isserlis has arranged a song by each composer, while a salon-like miniature by Auguste Franchomme, the first performer of Chopin’s sonata, is also included.

The disc opens with the youthful Pole’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante. The Polonaise was composed originally as a gift for Prince Antoni Radziwiłł and particularly for his daughter Princess Wanda to use as a practice piece; the Introduction was added a year later. In the hands of Isserlis and Várjon, it at once sounds glorious on these instruments, although its expressiveness seems to be crowd-pleasing rather than heartfelt. There’s a lovely ambience around Isserlis’ cello sound. Várjon attacks the piano part with great relish and a palpable sense of style as the Polonaise skitters towards its triumphant conclusion.

The French cellist Auguste Franchomme befriended Chopin once the Pole was domiciled in Paris and gave the first performance of his late sonata. He was also a composer in his own right; the Nocturne included here frankly amounts to little more than a pleasant trifle although its middle section conveys an agreeably Schubertian lilt. It certainly benefits from Isserlis’ and Várjon’s affectionate advocacy.

I will nail my colours to the mast at the outset and admit that I really struggle with Chopin’s late Cello Sonata although it’s not through want of trying. While I find the opening movement particularly gawky and awkward, for me the whole work never settles and maybe that’s the point, as it was conceived and written during the meltdown of his relationship with George Sand. To my ears it seems like a wayward rhapsody, stop-start and self-defeatingly histrionic. But I have to say I am captivated by the beauty of sound Isserlis and Várjon achieve in this account, and that has much to do with the ripe sound of Várjon’s 1851 Érard – it’s the sonic equivalent of a fine port. As Isserlis seems quite incapable  of producing anything approaching ugliness, I can go further and say I found this performance more revealing and enjoyable than Alban Gerhardt’s and Steven Osborne’s harder-edged reading on the same label (CDA 67624 - review), although to my mind the delicious and little-known Alkan sonata on that disc is its real raison d'ętre.

Isserlis contributes a breezy and thought-provoking note to the new disc and details his research into Chopin’s original drafts of the work; as a consequence, he restored Chopin’s original Maestoso marking to the first movement in place of the Allegro moderato it became, and this certainly has an effect on its character, affording it a gravitas I have perhaps failed to fully appreciate in previous encounters. Isserlis perceives a similarity in the opening theme of this movement to Gute Nacht, the opening Lied in Schubert’s tortured cycle Winterreise, which he suggests may not be a coincidence.  Serendipitous as this idea may be, especially in the context of this issue, I must respectfully declare my scepticism. The opening of the Scherzo is especially crisp and incisive, while its slow central section (Isserlis has again restored Chopin’s original piů lento marking) emerges as especially songful and yearning- to my ears the slow music in this sonata is its most affecting and characteristically Chopinesque, a perception that’s reinforced by Isserlis’ and Várjon’s account of the Largo which simultaneously projects both simplicity and depth. While the Allegro finale is infused with the spirit of rustic dance, these players successfully convey its melancholy, even angry subtext. There is unquestionably some lovely playing here, and Hyperion’s sound is superb; it’s this reading to which I shall return when I next seek to fathom the sonata’s abundant mysteries.

The arrangement of the late Chopin song Nie ma czego trzeba (I Want What I Have Not) constitutes an intermezzo between the two sonatas on this disc. Isserlis makes plain in the note that he is not typically given to arranging songs for cello, though in this case he suggests that the dark beauty of the music might actually be better appreciated without the tragic import of the accompanying text. It emerges as appropriately tentative and deeply melancholy.

The introductory piano phrase of the Allegro moderato of the Arpeggione sonata leaves us in no doubt that we are in the rarified world of late Schubert.  Várjon finds tangible earthiness in the sound of his singular instrument. Isserlis winningly captures the assumed timbres of the original Arpeggione, his cello tastefully thin and wiry. They strikingly convey the ambiguities of Schubert’s heavenly writing, the omnipresent nostalgia that underpins the sonata’s deceptively light surface, or, as Isserlis eloquently puts it “shedding tears as it smiles…. (rather than) smiling through tears” Thus when the initial theme returns, it’s mildly world weary, but the jaunty tune has an underlying resilience and defiance. The interplay between the subsequent dance-like figures is almost impish. The last few bars of the movement are taken very slowly, like a ghostly drinking song.

Isserlis sublimely captures the still-beating heart of the yearning central Adagio; layers of colour gently are drawn from his trusty ‘Marquis de Corberon’ Stradivarius, and are perfectly matched by Várjon’s tactful playing. Schubert’s music is almost heartbreaking, and here seems to slow down daringly, almost to the point of complete stasis. This music proved ideal company at 2.30am on a freezing morning, when I wrote this review. The slow movement leads straight into the final Allegretto, which conveys subliminal anxiety before the dance figure emerges at 1:30. The playing throughout this movement is perfectly elegant, and Isserlis projects flawless tone and intonation and the closing pages are inspired - the melody may be the same but it seems even sadder. It concludes an emotionally authentic and insightful interpretation from both protagonists. The last word on the disc comes in the form of Isserlis’ arrangement of Nacht und Träume. It is pure wordless poetry, and provides both solace and heartbreak. The sounds Várjon draws from the Érard here are appropriately crepuscular.

Isserlis and Várjon are experienced masters who wear their abundant skills refreshingly lightly. Notwithstanding my very personal comments about Chopin’s sonata, this thoughtfully conceived programme offers stellar playing in a warm, spacious recording which successfully overcomes any challenges presented by the venerable piano. Collectors to whom this repertoire appeals can invest with confidence.

Richard Hanlon



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