The Strad Issue: August 2015
Description: Authoritative musicianship from Isserlis and Hough in Romantic sonatas
Musicians: Steven Isserlis (cello) Stephen Hough (piano)
Composer: Grieg, Hough, Mendelssohn
Grieg’s Cello Sonata encompasses a wide-ranging emotional landscape, to which Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough, a magnificent partnership, respond with big-hearted playing. Isserlis is good at fluently shifting gears from musing poetry to titanic passion; the central cadenza (marked fff, crescendo, pesante – half-hearted playing will not do here) stands out, with vehement attack and woody timbre. The long, controlled crescendo in the second movement is masterly, making the sudden shift into gentle tranquillo all the more effective. In other hands the extensive finale can outstay its welcome but Isserlis and Hough turn Grieg’s occasional bombast into great drama through sheer vigour and tonal beauty.
Isserlis suggested to Hough that he write a sonata for cello and piano left hand, as a friend had problems with his right. The resulting three-movement work, run together into an unbroken narrative line, is full of melancholy beauty and nervy agitation, which they play with expression and power.
The heroic opening of Mendelssohn’s D major Sonata heralds a performance of muscular agitation and forthright rhetoric. The second movement has a delicate wit enclosing a barnstorming centre, and the finale is an outpouring of high spirits. Before it comes the highlight of the disc: a profound, spiritual account of the Adagio, with Isserlis eloquent in its crying cantilenas. The recording is clear and close, with excellent balance.