SHOSTAKOVICH; KABALEVSKY; PROKOFIEV Cello Sonatas (Isserlis)
‘Olli and I find it quite masterly – and addictive’, Steven Isserlis writes in a booklet note on Kabalevsky’s Cello Sonata, which he and Olli Mustonen have programmed here alongside more familiar works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, together with shorter pieces by all three composers. Kabalevsky, of course, divides opinion. He’s best known for his adherence to Soviet orthodoxy at a time when Shostakovich, in particular, was exploring ambiguities of expression in order to examine the darker truths of totalitarianism. His music is frequently described as bland, though the Sonata, written for Rostropovich in 1961, is anything but that.
It’s a gaunt work that oscillates between brooding introspection and quite alarming violence before releasing its tensions in a frantic perpetuum mobile that eventually attains a tenuous calm. Isserlis and Mustonen make a strong case for it in a performance of grand gestures that proves a real roller coaster ride. Isserlis’s intensity and Mustonen’s pianistic weight suit the piece wonderfully well, and the tolling opening chords sound at once solemn and threatening as Isserlis traces the sorrowing first subject over them. The first climax has an almost shocking ferocity that seems to haunt the meandering scherzo-cum-waltz that eventually follows, and the finale is both hair-raising in its manic energy and thrilling as a display of technical prowess.
The Shostakovich Sonata, in contrast, seems spacious and ruminative, particularly when placed beside Rostropovich’s performances with Britten at Aldeburgh in 1964 (BBC Legends, 12/09) or in 1959 with Shostakovich himself (now on Supraphon, 8/14), though the relaxed speeds adopted in the opening movement allow Isserlis to probe the music’s emotional resonances with great subtlety and Mustonen’s weight again proves telling in the first movement’s development, where the repetitive rhythms sound increasingly baleful. The bleak Largo is deeply felt, the finale all caustic wit and irony. Grandness of gesture surfaces again, meanwhile, in Prokofiev’s Ballade, its drama immeasurably heightened by the panache and warmth that both players bring to it.
The shorter pieces are also superbly done. Isserlis is at his most beguiling in Shostakovich’s early Moderato, while the pas de deux from Cinderella, which Prokofiev arranged before the ballet’s premiere, has plenty of passion and sweep. Kabalevsky’s Rondo in Memory of Prokofiev, dating from 1965, is curious, given that there was seemingly no love lost between the two composers. Avoiding direct quotation, Kabalevsky juxtaposes a poised adagio that could have come from one of Prokofiev’s ballets with passages of frenetic activity and spectral brilliance. Isserlis and Mustonen play it with the combination of lyricism and drama that characterises the rest of the disc. Very fine.