Saturday 31 May 2014

Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen give superb performances of works for cello and piano by Martinů, Sibelius and Mustonen, full of emotion and drama and, of course, fine musicianship on this new release from BIS

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was born in Polička, a small town in Bohemia near the Moravian border. He was the son of a shoemaker, who was also the town fire watchman which necessitated the family living in the tower of St. Jakob (St James) Church (now a museum). During his life he progressed from this unusual home to studying at the Prague Conservatory before returning to Polička. After the First World War, Martinů composed a patriotic cantata Česká rapsodie (Czech Rapsody), which was premiered to great acclaim in 1919. As a violinist, he toured Europe with the National Theatre Orchestra, and, in 1920, became a full member of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Martinů studied composition with Josef Suk but, wishing to widen his musical influences, he went to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Albert Roussel.

As the German army marched on Paris early in the Second World War, Martinů fled to America where he composed a great deal and taught at the Mannes College of Music, Yale University and the Berkshire Music Centre (Tanglewood). His first five symphonies were written between 1942 and 1946. In 1953, Martinů left the United States for France and settled in Nice, returning in 1955. In 1956, he took up an appointment as composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. He died at a clinic in Liestal, Switzerland, on August 28, 1959.

Martinů was an extremely prolific composer but it is his six symphonies that are probably the best known of his works but his concertos, including those for cello, viola, violin, oboe and five for the piano, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955) and his chamber music are well worth getting to know.

Those fine musicians, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen have recently recorded all three of Martinů’s Cello Sonatas which they have coupled with Sibelius’ Malinconia  and Mustonen’s own cello sonata making a very attractive collection on this new release form BIS Records

BIS - 2042

The Poco allegro of Martinů’s Sonata No.1 for cello and piano, H.277 (1939) opens with the piano, full of rhythmic instability, before the cello joins in the theme. There is a richness combined with intense passion from Steven Isserlis and, throughout, a feeling of turbulence and passion reflecting the events in his home country at that time. Both the parts for cello and piano are extremely taxing and played with consummate brilliance by both these fine artists with no let up until the end.

The Lento has a hesitant opening as the piano works out a theme, rising up and broadening before the cello enters, quickly rising to a lovely melody. Soon the music becomes more agitated and complex in texture before quietening with Isserlis drawing exquisite sounds from his cello. There is a central second subject with pizzicato cello and an expansive piano theme before the cello takes the theme to the gentle coda.

There is an aggressive opening to the Allegro con brio, for piano and cello as the music moves forward in an unstoppable fashion. Soon, a slower melody arrives which has an attractive rhythmic lilt but the music cannot maintain this relative calm, soon increasing in tempo. There are more, quieter passages but overall it is frenetic energy that drives this movement. Isserlis and Mustonen bring out all the extremes of emotion in this troubled work with some superb playing before the tremendous coda.

Olli Mustonen (b.1967) combines his role of pianist equally with that of composer and conductor. That he should be a successful composer should not be surprising given that he studied composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara.

His compositions include works for orchestra, concertos and works for soloist and orchestra, works for solo instruments, vocal and choral works and chamber works such as his Sonata for cello and piano (2006) that receives its world premiere recording here.

The first movement opens with a chord from the piano which is quickly followed by an anguished theme from the cello, repeated several times as the cello works out the theme. This music has a haunting quality. It soon rises up passionately with the piano providing a subtle counterpoint but soon returns to its quieter anguished nature. Later the cello provides a hovering base for a piano motif in which the cello momentarily joins before the hushed end.

The second movement, Andantino, opens with the piano playing an innocent sounding theme that is taken up by a more passionate cello, revealing this to be a movement full of yearning emotion. Soon the music takes off frenetically before slowing, again with some dissonant harmonies between cello and piano. After taking off again, full of emotion and passion, the music falls to a section that has the cello ruminating in its lower register. A rising theme for cello leads to a beautifully hushed coda with pizzicato cello. A fast rhythmic section opens Precipitato and continues in a frenzied manner, full of terrific playing from Isserlis and Mustonen who show absolutely amazing ensemble.

In the final movement the piano opens in a lovely theme soon joined by the cello that, again, adds a more passionate sound. There is a leisurely feel to this music under laid by a slightly nostalgic vein. Later the music rises up passionately to a climax with Isserlis drawing so much intense feeling from the music. As the intensity falls, the piano brings the music back but it is the cello that leads to a dramatic, fast and frenzied coda.

This is a striking work that will immediately appeal to listeners for its drama and emotional strength. It is finely played by these two fine artists.

Martinů’s Sonata No.2 for cello and piano, H.286 (1941) was written after his arrival in the USA and reflects, to some extent, a more optimistic outlook.

The piano opens the Allegro with a theme that darts around before the cello joins. Again there is terrific playing from both these two players, who respond to Martinů’s every twist and turn. Soon there is a quieter section that brings some exquisite playing in this more thoughtful passage. But nothing can hold back the infectious energy of this music as it soon takes off again. There are passages where the tautness of Isserlis and Mustonen’s ensemble is astonishing.

The piano gives the feeling of a tense solemnity in the opening of the Largo. As the cello joins it is clear that, for all Martinů’s bravado in the first movement, his thoughts cannot be kept from the events of his homeland with the music developing quite passionately. Centrally there is a passage for solo piano, heralded by a descending motif, before the cello joins in the angst filled drama with the piano providing an accompaniment that resembles a tolling bell. Eventually the music descends to a gentle hushed presentation of the opening melody as the music slowly leads to the coda.

With the Allegro commodo, Martinů sweeps aside all the dismal thoughts in a movement that has a fast rhythmic base to the music. There is more, fine playing from both cellist and pianist as they share the theme, responding brilliantly to each other. Towards the end there is a cello cadenza before the music races to the coda.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Malinconia, op.20 for cello and piano (1900) following the death of his infant daughter, Kirsti during a typhus epidemic. It is one of only two works that the composer wrote for cello and piano, the other being his Fantasia from around 1889. Malinconia was also originally called Fantasia.

There is some glorious playing from Steven Isserlis in the opening solo of Malinconia, with his lovely tone drawing all the dark, tragic feeling from the music. Mustonen is terrific in the florid piano sections that follow. This is a remarkable piece that allows both players to demonstrate their formidable techniques whilst drawing out the intense passion that imbues this work. Neither holds back in allowing the intense emotion through, as well as putting their phenomenal techniques to the test. It is only toward the end that the music allows a gentle respite, but only briefly as the piano leads both players to more passionate playing before a subdued but intense coda.

Martinů’s Sonata No.3 for cello and piano, H.340 (1952) dates from the year that he took US citizenship. The Poco andante – Moderato opens with the piano in an optimistic theme before the cello joins. There is a lightness here, even optimism, as the music moves forward. There is a section for solo piano before a slower section for cello where the piano, nevertheless, keeps a lively rhythm. This is music full of changeability of tempo and rhythm with some broader passages typical of Martinů before the coda.

The piano opens with pizzicato cello as the Andante slowly and tentatively emerges becoming quite animated as it progresses. Soon a slower melody appears, drawing the music into a more thoughtful mood but soon developing in intensity before quietening in a particularly lovely section that leads to a quiet conclusion.

There is a buoyant, rhythmic piano opening to the Allegro (ma non Presto) soon joined by the cello as the music bounces forward. There is a lovely solo piano passage before the cello re-joins leading with ever more energy to the triumphant coda.

Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen give superb performances of these works, full of emotion and drama and, of course, fine musicianship.

The recording, from Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, is well up to BIS’ high standards and there are excellent booklet notes by Steven Isserlis.

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