The Cello in Wartime
Of the numerous First World War-themed recordings that have come our way since 2014, this must be one of the most original – as well as one of most musically satisfying. Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih have put together a programme of cello sonatas linked chronologically by the Great War. Nothing too unusual there: the real surprises start with the four short items that close the disc, played by Isserlis on what’s described as a ‘trench cello’.
It’s actually a ‘holiday cello’, manufactured somewhere around 1900 – a portable, rectangular cello that can be dismantled and packed down into its own soundbox. But similar instruments are known to have been cobbled together in the trenches, and this one saw service at Ypres with its former owner, Harold Triggs. Isserlis is clearly taken with what he calls its ‘shy, soft tone’: there’s a viola-like reticence to its sound that gives an affecting sweetness to Isserlis and Shih’s performances of miniatures that they imagine might have been played by Triggs to entertain his comrades at the Front.
But Isserlis is back on his Strad for the four main works, and there’s no reticence about Shih’s playing either. In keeping with the wartime theme, these are passionate, red-blooded performances – the Debussy, in particular, is a thing of rich oils and dark charcoal. Isserlis’s top notes have an almost human quality; eerie cries punctuate each of these works, as well as moments of jagged dissolution. Isserlis and Shih think and move alike. There’s a tragic grandeur to the still underrated Bridge Sonata (even the moments of rapture are anything but careless), and an air of suppressed tension throughout the Fauré. Webern’s microscopic Three Pieces are wonderfully ominous: another unexpected moment on an imaginative and superbly realised disc.