Isserlis Plays Music of WWI

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THE CELLO IN WARTIME / DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata. BRIDGE: Cello Sonata. FAURÉ: Cello Sonata No. 1. WEBERN: Drei Kleine Stücke. SAINT-SAËNS: Carnival of the Animals: The Swan.* PARRY: Jerusalem.* NOVELLO: Keep the Home Fires Burning.* TRADITIONAL: God Save the King* / Steven Isserlis, cello/*trench cello; Connie Shih, pn / Bis SACD 2312

This is one of those odd “concept” albums record companies seem to come up with in alarming numbers nowadays, trying to re-sell older repertoire to people who already have recordings of it in their collection. As you can tell from the album cover and title above, the gimmick here is to give an impression of how the war affected several composers while also trying to recreate the playing of a British soldier on a “trench cello,” somewhat smaller, rectangularly shaped and able to fit into a box resembling a little coffin. What on earth these things have to do with one another rather escapes me. It seems to me like two or three “concepts” forced together into one CD.

The saving grace of this album, however, is British cellist Steven Isserlis, clearly one of the greatest players of his instrument now living. I’ve been a fan of his since the early years of this century, when I first heard him on the old “St. Paul Sunday” radio show. I fell in love with both his playing and that of American cellist Zuill Bailey, and they remain favorites of mine today.

Isserlis is at his arresting best in most of this recital, starting out with one of the great masterpieces for his instrument, the Debussy sonata, which he plays very well. I also applaud him for including the Cello Sonata of Frank Bridge, one of my favorite composers of this era and one that I almost feel transcended “being British,” if you know what I mean. His music was just so fresh, so modern and so cosmopolitan that he always seemed to be outside the norm of his time and place, just as it’s difficult to think of Szymanowski as being “Polish” or Igor Markevitch as being “Russian.” Their music just “was,” and it was interesting. Here Bridge is rather more lyrical and less harmonically astringent than he later became, especially in the first movement. It’s sort of like listening to Scriabin’s early piano sonatas with their strong debt to Chopin. You can hear glimpses of where the composer was going, but he hadn’t quite arrived there yet. Still, Isserlis plays this music with such energy and evident love that the listener is swept up in the process. Pianist Connie Shih has a wonderful technique and a good style, and she complements Isserlis splendidly, although I miss a little more warmth in the piano tone. There’s a late-Romantic feel in the first movement particularly, whereas the second has a bleaker, more melancholy bent to it. Moreover, his use of harmony here is more interesting and less predictable; the whole mood of the piece is wistful, as if Bridge were thinking of someone he had lost or remembering a place he could no longer return to. The notes tell us that Bridge, a lifelong pacifist, was devastated by the horrors of the war, and would “pace the streets of London in the middle of the night; it was apparently during those nocturnal wanderings that the ideas for this movement, which took several years to complete, started to take shape.” It is, as the booklet puts it, fantasy that develops into phantasmagoria.

Clearly, Isserlis’ interpretation of Fauré’s Cello Sonata of 1917 is one of his finest achievements on disc. He takes a bold, fresh approach to the music, clearing away what some music critics have heard as “complicated” and making sense of the whole thing. Perhaps it is due to his stylistic approach, taking the music in hand as a continual spinning-out of ideas and playing it with only small rubato touches here and there. This, along with pianist Shih’s clear-eyed, almost bracing performance of the accompaniment, pulls the disparate and sometimes conflicting motifs of the music together, clarifying its structure and making it sound surprisingly modern for the work of a 72-year-old composer who didn’t quite get or appreciate the shifting harmonies of his impressionist brethren. This is particularly true of the second movement, which in the hands of other cellists can sometimes sound quite sentimental and soggy. The last movement, too, which starts out rather lyrically, has a nice sweep to it that makes the melodic line sound a bit more objective. I played this whole sonata twice, listening carefully and finding different nuances each time I heard it. It’s quite an achievement, clearly one of the highlights of this set.

We then leave France and Romantically-infused music to jump feet first into the 12-tone music of Anton Webern. Interestingly, just as Isserlis played the music of Fauré with rather more objective style than usual, he plays these brief but fascinating pieces by Webern with a warm tone and rich vibrato, which brings out considerably more emotion in them than is usually found. I can’t recall ever hearing anything by Webern played with this much warmth and feeling; it almost feels as if the composer had written these pieces with Isserlis in mind.

I was thus a bit surprised to hear him play the well-worn Swan of Saint-Saëns in a slow, moody manner. This is the first of four selections that Isserlis plays on the trench cello, introduced to him by Charles Beare. Isserlis states that he “fell in love with its shy, soft tone” and played it in public a few times. His choice of material played on it here was dictated by what he imagined its original owner, Harold Triggs, might have played on it in those days. Listening carefully, one hears what might be described as a “break” in the tone between registers, as a singer displays. I’m not sure what might cause this as I am not an expert at playing the cello, but it is audible. It’s a strange but charming end to the recital.

All in all, a really lovely disc, but then again, I would have expected nothing less from Isserlis.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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