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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 (1934) [27:21]
Moderato for cello and piano (1930s?) [2:31]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Ballade in C major, Op. 15 (1912) [10:53]
Adagio “Cinerella and the Prince” (1944 arr. Prokofiev from Cinderella) [3:52]
Dmitri KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Cello Sonata in B flat major, Op. 71 (1962) [21:54]
Rondo in memory of Prokofiev, Op. 79 (1965) [9:57]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Olli Mustonen (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, UK
HYPERION CDA68239 [76:33]

This superb recital presents three works for cello and piano, one from each of three major twentieth-century Russian composers, with, as generous and significant fillers, a further, shorter work by each composer.

Shostakovich was 28 when he began to compose his Cello Sonata. His marriage was in disarray (a not infrequent circumstance for the composer) but much of the work avoids obvious signs of distress. The opening movement is lyrical and melodious, though with traces of sadness that these artists bring out with particular success. They are also very good at exposing those sinister, threatening undertones that occur throughout the work, and even in this first movement. Mustonen’s touch can be on the percussive side, a characteristic more suited to the turbulent second movement scherzo than the first, but his understanding of the atmosphere of the work is unerring. Isserlis, as always, is admirable, his tone enviably rich and expressive. The pair are particularly penetrating in the slow movement, where once again they find bleak and searching elements that others sometimes miss.

The short Moderato is intriguing mainly because of its origins. It was probably composed in the 1930s but was only discovered amongst the composer’s papers in 1986. It’s an attractive piece, pensive and wistful with little of Shostakovich’s habitual torment or melancholy.

Kabalevsky’s Sonata will be the great discovery for many listeners, as indeed it was for me. The opening is striking, tolling bells in the piano part beneath a lilting yet sombre compound- time melody from the cello. One can well imagine how the fearsome central passage of this first movement brilliantly exploited the virtuosity and high register mastery of the cellist for whom the work was composed, one Mstislav Rostropovich. The opening music then returns peacefully, before the movement ends in truly shocking fashion. The second movement is a kind of madcap waltz, and the finale once again demands the utmost in virtuosity from the players. When the music from the opening returns to close the sonata the effect is satisfying whilst also leaving the listener with questions unanswered.

The Rondo in memory of Prokofiev was composed as a competition set piece, but only the wide range of techniques demanded of the cellist give sign of its utilitarian origins. It is, in fact, a deeply felt and quite remarkable work. Its several episodes include one whose wildness might be heard as a direct tribute to Prokofiev, though similar passages also occur in the sonata. Then there is a long and rather spectral cadenza. This music is full of personality: for those, like the present listener, who have tended to ignore Kabalevsky, thinking of him as a relatively insignificant figure in modern Russian music, it may well turn out to be a revelation, all the way to the highly original and rather disturbing way it ends.

Prokofiev’s Ballade is ostensibly in C major but begins very much in the minor key with music the composer had written when only 11 years old. A dramatic series of chords from the piano lead to a long melody from the cello, and the work passes thereafter through a series of varied moods. A long pizzicato passage precedes what Isserlis, in the notes, refers to as a ‘wailing’ third theme. The work ends with a gentle reprise of the opening music, properly in C major now, with the cello on its lowest, open C string.

The arrangement of a passage from the ballet Cinderella is also in C. This sonorous, richly scored passage is deeply romantic in atmosphere, appropriately so, as one reads that the music accompanies, in the original ballet, “the first ecstatic dance” of Cinderella and the Prince at the ball.

All six works receive performances of the utmost quality, and the recorded sound in well up to the standards expected of Hyperion with, in particular, a highly successful balance between the instruments. Steven Isserlis, not content with being an outstanding cellist, is also a most accomplished writer, and his engaging booklet note is a positive feature of this issue. The programme is an unusual one and, as such, comparisons are not particularly relevant. I have to hand alternative performances of the Shostakovich Sonata only, and find that this is now my favourite reading of the work, though I remain very attached to a fine performance by Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood (Signum), which I reviewed here in 2012. I also now prefer Walton and Grimwood to Han-Na Chang and Antonio Pappano, a reading to which I referred in that review. Collectors should be aware, however, of two recorded performances by Rostropovich, one with the composer at the piano and the other with Benjamin Britten. I have not heard either of these, a failing that I intend to put right. Prompted by this marvellous programme, I will also be exploring more Kabalevsky.

William Hedley

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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