A Rewarding Recital from Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Mustonen, Kabalevsky: Steven Isserlis (cello); Olli Mustonen (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 29.10.2017. (CC)

Prokofiev – Ballade in C minor, Op.15
Mustonen Chanson Russe et Danse Oriental
Kabalevsky – Cello Sonata in B flat, Op.70

Brilliant programming rather than the smell of free coffee was what lured me to the Wigmore on the morning of the clocks changing. The prospect of hearing Olli Mustonen in some of his own music was an intriguing one, too.

But first, the Prokofiev Ballade, a piece with an involved piano part that forms the backdrop for Isserlis’ long-limbed, expressive cello lines. The musical material comes from Prokofiev’s early “notebooks” (as was famously the case with his Third Piano Sonata). Mustonen set down his own credentials in the dramatic, piano-only opening, only his characteristic sweeping his hands off the keyboard and upwards emerging as rather off-putting, visually. He has a terrific staccato though (no wonder he is so associated with Prokofiev’s piano sonatas and concertos); something beautifully echoed by Isserlis’ pizzicati. This was a lovely and loving performance of a work that needs more outings. Prokofiev’s music for cello and piano is deeply rewarding, and a disc I reviewed for MusicWeb International in 2003 is the next recommended stop for interested readers.

A certain amount of hyperbole is pardonable in programme notes and biographies, but surely to claim that Mustonen as composer/pianist is directly in the tradition of Rachmaninov, Busoni and Enescu is taking things a step too far. His 1995 piece, Chanson Russe et Danse Oriental certainly has a folksy element about it in its long opening section. It is charming and seems to incorporate the odd Baroque gestural reference in the piano. The Chanson ends on a terrifically high cello note that leads into the angular, very brief – too brief? –  Danse Oriental.

Finally for the advertised programme, Kabalevsky’s Cello Sonata in B flat, Op.71 of 1962, a work (unsurprisingly) premiered by Rostropovich – with the composer at the piano. Its first movement, an Andante molto sostenuto, includes a Russian tolling bell in the piano part (more floppy hands from Mustonen, but close your eyes and it sounds great) and delivers a beautifully sustained argument. Its fiery contrastive toccata-scherzo section was brilliantly done by Isserlis and Mustonen, while the bare writing of the central Allegretto con moto leads into a Prokofiev-like moto perpetuo. The virtuoso demands of the finale were ably mastered by both players, its scurrying theme not holding a hint of the work’s brilliantly enigmatic end. Isserlis’ articulation at the opening – and his tuning -was exemplary.

There was an encore, but a brief one: Sibelius’ Waltz in F sharp minor, JS194, “Lulu Waltz”, a delicious one minutes’ worth of nostalgia, tenderly played. A short recital – way less than an hour – but a rewarding one, and one that whets the appetite for another Wigmore Hall event on the same day: Jordi Savall’s visit in the evening.

Colin Clarke

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