Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Steven Isserlis @ Wigmore Hall, London

13 February 2009


Steven Isserlis meets his match with the pianist and composer Olli Mustonen.

Well known for his charisma, the cellist has to compete with another strong personality when performing with his friend and collaborator. Where another partnership might have simply come to blows, however, here sparks fly.

At this Wigmore concert, part of a European tour, the pair offered exactly the right sort of partnership for their choice of urgent, and frequently disturbing, works: confident, and robust to the point of antagonism, their performance shed light on the dark heart of their material. That the programme’s centre of gravity settled on the mid-twentieth-century set the tone of the evening, with themes of tragedy and trauma dominating, and much of the music winding into frenzy so that quieter passages, by contrast, took on an eerie significance.

Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Op.65, a piece written for Mstislav Rostropovich early in their fruitful friendship, soon after meeting in 1960, was an apt place to start, reflecting, as it did, their own productive association.

Mustonen’s 2006 composition Sonata for cello and piano which followed, proved the most exciting piece of the programme. Lonely opening phrases in the ‘Misterioso’ movement dissolve as the drama mounts, and a potent sense of threat and ecstasy apparently inspired by Orthodox church music is cultivated through the remaining movements towards the highly charged ‘Con visione’ finale. It is a hugely impressive work and it sits comfortably in this high-powered programme.

Sadness permeates Sibelius’s Malinconia Op.20, which had its 1900 premiere a month after the composer’s daughter died from typhoid. Its title (and indeed some of its significance) was applied retrospectively but one cannot help but be moved in this knowledge by the tender exchanges between the two instruments.

Stravinsky’s Chanson russe, a short arrangement for piano and cello from his disastrous one-act opera Mavra, offered a welcome interlude before the heartache continued with Martinu’s Cello Sonata No.1. Written on the cusp of World War II, the piece begins deceptively with sprightly dance-like rhythms, as if to mimic the false enthusiasm of the 1930s, before sliding into an abyss of wild abandon.

An encore piece by Mustonen titled, Frogs Dancing on Water Lilies, effectively defused the static that had built up over the previous two hours, and with it the pair visibly relaxed. As well as exceptional musicianship it is their unique performance style that makes the partnership unique: Isserlis shakes his substantial mane as he charms his 1730 ‘Feuermann’ Strad into the more furious passages while Mustonen’s off-board finger-work becomes increasingly florid and elaborate. You cannot take your eyes or ears off the stage for a second.


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