It’s always a coup when two internationally renowned soloists come together to play chamber music, and Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough undoubtedly make quite the pair, though you wouldn’t guess it straight away. Isserlis, with his signature mop of wild, grey locks, is a hot-blooded player known for his energy and sense of fun. Hough, sporting his neatly parted, conservatively coifed do, is instead the picture of cool, refined control.
Hairstyles aside, they each possess profound musical intellects, while both are considerable champions of creative diversity. Isserlis is just as much at home playing Bach as he is tackling the toughest of contemporary music, and besides the standard repertoire, Hough has a keen curiosity for discovering some of the more rarely heard music of the 19th century. It’s a testament to each of them that they can effortlessly trade the soloist spotlight for the delicate and often difficult dualism of chamber music.
This disc marks their third joint foray into the cello sonata repertoire. They’ve done the Brahms sonatas as well as Rachmaninov and Franck. This time they’ve chosen to feature some lesser-known offerings, including Grieg’s only cello sonata and Mendelssohn’s second. Nestled in between these two gems is Hough’s own Sonata for Cello and Piano Left Hand, Les Adieux. It’s a nice programme, showing off the virtuosic possibilities of the cello-piano combination, not to mention its sweet and sensitive side.
Grieg’s sonata is an exceptional work. The first movement offers a series of arresting themes, at times romantic and lyrical, at others stormy and passionate. The robust core of Isserlis’s sound is always palpable, balanced perfectly by Hough’s articulate pianism. The second movement is a real highlight for its gorgeous thematic material. The third movement’s rollicking main theme bounces us out of our reverie, with material recalling Grieg’s ever-popular Piano Concerto, and in the same key of A Minor.
The language of Hough’s Sonata for Cello and Piano Left Hand looks back to the Romantic period, but through a lens that speaks to his eclectic and intellectual spirit. Hough’s writing for the piano is so masterful and dynamic that you forget there is only one hand playing. The soft chordal flow of the third movement’s Adagio Sereno is a real treat.
Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No 2 in D brings a sunny change, with its optimistic first movement and playful second. There’s lyricism aplenty in the minor-tinged third, before a flurry of activity brings the work to a close with an energetic finale.