Isserlis and Hough have, together, amassed a pretty impressive discography. This dates back to 1995 with a disc astutely titled ‘Forgotten Romance’ for the RCA label. Latterly, they have been contracted to Hyperion, and their recordings of Rachmaninov and Franck and the two Brahms sonatas have garnered numerous accolades. The Grieg Sonata featured here was included in that early RCA recording. I regret never having heard it, as a comparison would have been helpful.
This latest release has been imaginatively put together, with two big romantic cello sonatas framing one of Stephen Hough’s own compositions, a Sonata for cello and piano left hand. It was written at the request of Isserlis for a mutual pianist friend of both artists, who had temporarily lost the use of his right hand.
It’s difficult to comprehend why the Grieg Sonata has taken a bit of a backseat in the cellist’s performing repertoire. It’s a delightful work, by turns both rhapsodic and lyrical. In the opening movement the players successfully traverse the emotional narrative, alternating drama and passion with fervent lyricism. The second subject of the first movement calls to mind the equivalent in the Third Violin Sonata. In the second movement, Grieg incorporates another familiar melody, from the incidental music to Bjornsterne Bjornson’s historical drama Sigurd Jorsalfar. The duo build the music up to a ravishing climax in a grand romantic sweep. The finale is suffused with folklorish elements and Nordic charm. The work bears a dedication to Grieg’s cellist brother John from whom he was estranged but reconciliation did not result. The Sonata was premièred in Leipzig on 27 October 1883 by Julius Klengel, with the composer at the piano. Throughout, both instruments are on an equal footing and Isserlis and Hough do it proud.
The placing of the Hough Sonata between the two lush romantic canvases, shows some intelligent insight and shrewd planning. The work was co-commissioned by the Tetbury Music Festival, and by the Kronberg Festival in Germany. It was at the latter that the Sonata was given its première by these performers in October 2013. In contrast to the extrovert character of the Grieg and Mendelssohn, Hough’s work is dark and sombre. Subtitled ‘Les Adieux’ the composer states: ‘The subtitle is non-programmatic but it underlines the melancholy spirit of the piece as well as conjuring up the ghosts of Beethoven and Dussek’. It is cast in one continuous movement with three distinct sections. The work begins and ends with cello pizzicatos and, throughout, is suffused with a serene and contemplative demeanor. The faster passages are angst-ridden and provide a rewarding contrast. Isserlis and Hough deliver this profoundly evocative piece with utter commitment.
For me, it’s the Mendelssohn Sonata that’s the star of the show. The duo deliver an exhilarating account of this warhorse, going for broke on all accounts. The opening movement is exuberant and briskly paced, underpinned with rhythmic thrust and energy. I was particularly drawn to the Adagio which, in the hands of this illustrious pair, is raptly intense and has an improvisatory feel. After a lengthy piano introduction, Isserlis’ contribution is both wistful and filled with pathos. All is capped with a buoyant and extrovert finale, both carefree and optimistic. I have always rated the Lynn Harrell and Bruno Canino recording (Decca 430198) very highly, but this new offering definitely has the edge.
The Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex, UK, provides a warm, resonant and sympathetic acoustic. Balance between the players couldn’t be bettered. Steven Isserlis has provided some insightful annotations. With each new recording this illustrious duo go from strength to strength.