Russian Old and New from Isserlis and Melnikov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Pletnev, Kissin, Rachmaninov: Steven Isserlis (cello), Alexander Melnikov (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.2.2018. (CS)

Steven Isserlis (c) Satoshi Aoyagi
Steven Isserlis (c) Satoshi Aoyagi

Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40
Mikhail Pletnev – Cello Sonata (2006)
Evgeny Kissin – Sonata-Ballade for cello and piano (2017)
Rachmaninov – Cello Sonata in G minor Op.19

At Kings Place last weekend, Gemma Rosefield and Katya Apekisheva prefaced two great Russian cello sonatas with folk-infused dance and romance from Czechoslovakia.  Steven Isserlis and Alexander Melnikov chose a different approach at Wigmore Hall, sonatas by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov forming a frame for recently composed works by two Russians better known for their piano-playing than as composers.

Isserlis is the dedicatee of Mikhail Pletnev’s 2006 Cello Sonata and in this performance the cellist seemed to relish the work’s rich Romantic lyricism and extended melodicism.  The Sonata is unashamedly tonal but in no way sentimental or saccharine, and Isserlis’ fluid melodies had eloquence and strength of character.  Indeed, serious ‘arguments’ make their presence felt from the opening bars of the first movement Andante, as the piano’s ‘ticking’ motif established the unwavering, gently insistent ‘heart-beat’ that pulsed through the movement – passed between piano and cello, brought to the fore then retreating to the shadows, inescapable and quietly unsettling.

The movement seemed almost a meditation on time, and such reflections continued in the ensuing Scherzo in which Melnikov’s light-fingered tapping took on a Mendelssohnian elfin glee at times.  There were dashes of darkness too, though – glimpses of Prokofiev’s sardonic bite perhaps – in the cello’s descents in the trio section and some thundering excursions to the piano’s lower realms, culminating in a surprisingly aggressive gesture from Melnikov to bring the spirited dancing to an abrupt close.  The extended Adagio with which the Sonata concludes requires sustained concentration from the listener, but Isserlis’ articulation of its contemplative wanderings was beautifully crafted and nuanced.  Melnikov was a sensitive accompanist and Isserlis never had to force the tone as his searching melodies unfolded, travelling from peacefulness through unrest to torment, then gradually returning to calm, the cello’s final note fading exquisitely to a delicate whisper, then niente.

Evgeny Kissin’s Sonata-Ballade for cello and piano is more obviously driven by disquiet and conflict.  Composed in 2017, it is a tightly constructed work in which an oscillating semi-tone, first introduced by the piano, attempts to destabilise the cello’s initial theme – an angular but expressive declaration – leading to repeated exchanges of material and varied repetitions of the musical arguments.  Isserlis and Melnikov conveyed the work’s intensity, struggle and gravity, but, for this listener at least, it’s knottiness proved indissoluble.

Cool clarity marked the Allegro non troppo of Shostakovich’s 1934 Cello Sonata, which opened the recital, Melnikov taking great care to etch the piano’s counterpoint with restraint and crisp dryness, allowing the yearning gentleness of Isserlis’ opening melody to speak delicately.  There were emotional ups and downs, and extremes: the pianissimo second subject seemed almost fragile, and the cello’s vibrato-less tone at the close was eerie, even deathly.  The fluidity of Isserlis’ bowing in the whirling Allegro was impressive, against which the piano’s metallic jangle formed a striking colour-contrast.  I was struck by the hollow coldness of the Largo, a huge gulf seeming to open up between the high cello and low piano, expressive of a pained alienation and despair.  But, there was no wallowing in angst or hopeless wandering: the flowing tempo gave the melody shape and meaning, and, again, Isserlis’ ability to seep into silence at the close was affecting.  Melnikov conjured a tip-toeing cat in the finale, his spiky chords as sharp as shards of glass.  If there was humour in this movement it was of the mordant – and somewhat jittery – kind.

The Romantic expressiveness and emotional peaks of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata made their usual mark, and if occasionally Isserlis’ middle register didn’t quite project through the texture, then once again Melnikov’s precision and purity proved a good partner for Isserlis’ more indulgent and ardent lyricism.  But, just as the duo had constructed a programme designed to surprise and provoke reflection, so there were some unexpected touches in this perennial favourite too.   A sad dreaminess imbued the Lento and there was a slight but telling delay, as the final high D of the cello’s meno mosso climb hovered in the silence, before Melnikov plunged into the Allegro moderato, the tempo of which was steady but persuasively flexible – as with the rubato which swayed the piano’s second subject.  Always there was a sense of building, journeying, discovering until Melnikov’s stabbing motif planted a firm full-stop.

I felt a much greater spirit of conflict in the Allegro scherzando than is sometimes the case, with the restless unease of the piano increasingly fuelled by anger and doing battle with the cello’s more elegiac utterances.  Each idea seemed at times to be on the cusp of triumph, before the work closed in an uneasy truce.  I found Isserlis’ vibrato rather too excessive and wide in the Andante, but I liked the way the warmer, firmer tone of the recapitulated melody created a sense of growth and assurance.  There was a heroic spring in Melnikov’s step at the start of the finale, the weak beat accents stamping defiantly, but rhythmic freedom again enriched the cello’s Moderato song and when it was reprised an octave higher it was further ‘lifted’ by the piano’s sparkling triplet cascades.  The central Meno mosso episode was surprisingly serious and pensive, but the piano’s pounding cadential octaves proved a propulsive springboard into the recapitulation in which a marvellous sense of freedom prevailed.

This was a generous concert before a full audience at Wigmore Hall, but we were offered further food for thought in the form of Scriabin’s Romance for cello (originally horn) and piano.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment