United Kingdom Kabalevsky, Janáček, Shostakovich: Steven Isserlis (cello), Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano). Livestreamed from Wigmore Hall, London, on 2.2.2021. (CS)
Kabalevsky – Cello Sonata in B flat major Op.71
Janáček – Pohádka
Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40
A hefty dose of Slavonic ‘soul’ animated this recital by Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen, in which sonatas by two Russian composers who found themselves on opposite sides of the political and ‘formalist’ divide when Stalin was in power framed a musical response to a Russian fairy-tale, taking us on a journey into a Tsar’s magic kingdom.
Dmitri Kabalevsky’s embrace of ‘socialist realism’ may have served him well while Stalin was in power but posterity has tended to disparage the founder of the Union of Soviet Composers as a pro-Stalinist producer of state-sanctioned works. The Cello Sonata which he wrote for Rostropovich in 1962 has deeper mysteries into which to delve, however. Isserlis and Rushdie Momen relished the almost confessional quality of the music, hesitant at first, in the dark, introspective rovings of the Andante molto sostenuto, feverishly impassioned in the Sonata’s concluding perpetuum mobile.
Isserlis’s tone is always sweet and his legato bow action silky. At the opening, the lovely warm grain of his low register heightened the sense of repressed emotions seeking release as the cello line strove higher, determinedly, and with unwavering intensity. If, when the peaks were scaled, the melody relaxed and Isserlis’s vibrato softened, then such moments were absorbed within an unsettled canvas in which light and dark fluctuated uneasily. Wistful interjections from the piano were answered by the cello’s more emotive unburdening, and the result was a restless, compelling dialogue, one which exploded with unexpected violence, hurling us into a disturbing turbulence and torment. One might have wished for more variety of colour from Isserlis, to match Rushdie Momen’s diverse palette, a bit more cragginess at times, but it’s probably unfair to complain that the sound is enduringly easy on the ear. Certainly, the cello’s improvisatory double-stopping was a quasi-mesmerising lure into the strange coda, in which the piano’s dancing lightness was violently wrenched back into the gloom.
The uncertain fragments and flutters with which the Allegretto con moto begins were no less disquieting, and the dance that ensued – ‘the waltz that never was’, in Rostropovich’s words – flitted with astonishing rhythmic fluidity and textural transparency. The menace was all the more potent for being understated, and here Isserlis did explore the full range of cello timbres, as throbbing pizzicatos were countered by icy tremolos. The communication between the duo was superb, as they halted and freed the music’s momentum. The Allegro molto was furious – I’m sure the fiery whirling of the perpetuum mobile is not supposed to sound this ‘effortless’! – but if technically the players were untroubled by the virtuosic demands then the passionate intensity of the desperate outpourings, first agitated, then soulful, was gripping. The final recollections of the Sonata’s quiet explorations offered only ambiguous consolations.
Isserlis and Rushdie Momen confirmed that Kabalevsky’s Sonata absolutely deserves alongside Shostakovich’s more well-known Cello Sonata of 1934. The Allegro non troppo which opens the latter was wonderfully flexible and relaxed. The musicians imbued the quiet, tender melodies with a dreamy quality, almost improvisatory at times, though the underlying dynamism was never entirely quelled and sprang forth with freedom and captivating drama. Rushdie Momen’s light, cool touch perfectly complemented Isserlis’s distanced reflections, and the duo’s musical rapport made the wide range of emotions presented absolutely persuasive.
From such rare nuance, the scherzo leapt with a disturbing wildness and volatility – skidding, whirling and clattering with steely relentlessness. Did the sarcasm bite through? I’m not sure, but the movement swept forth as if commanded by a frightening, iron-hard force that would not be denied. Then, from demonism to desolation: and if in the bleak exposure of the Largo Isserlis could still find warm wistfulness, this was balanced by Rushdie Momem’s urgent, tense interjections, and the whole movement had spontaneous expressive quality which was deeply touching. From the piano’s first whipping snatches, the Finale had a mischievous grin on its face, which at times threatened to slip into a wild grimace, but settled for wry eyebrow raising and, at the close, a satisfied smile.
In between these Russian sonatas came a music fairy-tale by a Moravian Slavophile: Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka – a loosely programmatic representation of episodes from Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky’s The Legend of Czar Berendej, which offers encounters with immortal rulers of the underworld, enchanted lakes, silver ducklings that transform into beautiful maidens, superhuman challenges, a romance between a prince and princess thwarted, then, finally, destinies fulfilled. Janáček composed the work in 1910, subsequently revising it twice, adding and then removing a fourth movement. Isserlis and Rushdie Momen performed the restored three-movement version which is the one most commonly heard today.
The gentle piano rippling with which the opening Con moto begins was beautifully tender and pure, and answered with warmth by Isserlis’s perkier pizzicatos, and the easy conversation between the piano and cello – Prince Ivan and Princess Maria perhaps – continued in their wonderfully relaxed exchanges of the glorious lyrical themes that unfold. The cello frequently has accompaniment-figures which in Isserlis’s hands were always expressive and suggestive. The juxtaposition of different material created a sort of narrative mosaic of fluctuating emotions and moods. In the pianissimo conclusion to the final folky Allegro, the music simply and charmingly tiptoed away. Performed with such clarity and communicativeness, Pohádka proved, like all the best fairytales, beautiful and bewitching.
Steven Isserlis and Mishka Rushdie Momen performed together during the first week of live broadcasts back in June 2020, when Wigmore Hall re-opened after the first Covid-19 lockdown. Now, in the middle of the third such lockdown, their encore, Rachmaninov’s early Lied (Romance), seemed to cast an elegiac shadow over the Hall which will, following two more recitals by guitarist Michael Butten (on Saturday 6th February) and the Nash Ensemble (on Monday 8th February), fall temporarily silent. These livestreams have been both ground-breaking and soul-saving during the past nine months. The moment when I can sink into the Hall’s comfortable crimson seats once again – virtually or in person – cannot come soon enough.
Past Wigmore Hall live streams are available to view on demand on the Hall’s website.