SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40; Moderato for Cello and Piano; PROKOFIEV: Ballade in C Major, Op. 15; Cinderella: Adagio, Op. 97-bis; KABALEVSKY Cello Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 71; Rondo in Memory of Prokofiev, Op. 79 – Steven Isserlis, cello/ Olli Mustonen, piano – Hyperion CDA68239, 76:33 (2/1/19)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Steven Isserlis seems intent on bearing the mantle of Gregor Piatagorsky, whose one recording of the 1934 Shostakovich Cello Sonata in 1940 with Valentin Pavlovsky (CBS RL 3015) set the standard. Here, Isserlis (rec. 1-4 March 2018) complements this powerful work with a set of accompanying Russian works, some recently introduced into the repertory, such as the Moderato (1986) of Shostakovich and the 1965 Rondo by Dmitri Kabalevsky.

Shostakovich composed his D minor Sonata during an emotionally disturbed time in his life, since he felt caught between his duties as a husband and his desire for a translator, Elena Konstantinovskaya.  With cellist Viktor Kubatsky in mind, Shostakovich fashions first a melancholy theme followed by a secondary tune beset by romantic yearning.  Evolving in sonata-form, the music utilizes a three-note motif that assumes more “fateful” overtones, sinister and disruptive.  The grim sensibility continues into the coda, which applies a mordant version of the opening theme as a kind of death-march.

Typical of the Shostakovich dry irony, he called his second movement Allegro a “minuet,” but this acerbic and demonic tirade has little to offer the ballroom, unless Berlioz serves as the host. Isserlis must apply various sorts of grating effects, glissando harmonics, and sudden shifts of register, while pianist Mustonen does a dervish dance in staccato. Mustonen’s work in the last movement reveals no less his virtuosic brilliance. The Largo proceeds in an unbroken line of grief in minor sixths, a lament of dark intimacy. By the end of the movement, a feeling of distraught suffering dominates the procession despite a moment of E Major. The last movement, Allegro, presents a rondo in which the two instruments veer off at cross purposes. The manic and strident atmosphere becomes fraught with counterpoint that does little to ingratiate the basic dance tempo. Later in life, when the composer would perform this work with his most distinguished soloist, Mstislav Rostropovich, the latter called Shostakovich “an insane romantic.”

The Moderato, published in 1986, supposedly dates from 1924, when the composer conceived of pieces for cello and piano as his Op. 9. Its dark, romantic color would seem to exclude it as a candidate for the Sonata. The piece emerges as a lovely song, ardent and mysterious, especially since Shostakovich claimed that the music came to him like a spirit, and he merely “took dictation.”

Prokofiev’s Ballade for Cello and Piano (1912) comes to us from his so-called enfant terrible period that produced the mighty Piano Concerto No. 2 and Scythian Suite. The work subdivides into two sections, like a Scarlatti sonata. Thunderous piano chords open the piece—a la Tchaikovsky—and the cell enters with a theme that has a distinctly folk quality.  The long pizzicato passage for cello brings its own challenges. The new melody calls for a series of expressive markings, once more reminiscent of Tchaikovsky: tristamente, molto espressivo, and piangendo, several of which derive from The Queen of Spades. While dark forces had they say and their day, they become relatively subdued, the opening theme now appearing, literally, as a shadow—tenebroso—of itself. Isserlis descends to the lowest note of his instrument, a moment of resigned gloom. The 1941 Cinderella ballet features orchestral cellos in the Adagio presented here. The poetic love of Cinderella for the Prince at their first ballroom dance finds exalted expression, as arranged by the composer for Gregor Piatagorsky’s brother, Alexander Stogorsky.  The music virtually throbs with emotion and tender longing.

Dmitri Kabalevsky, who remains a figure of (political) controversy, composed his Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1962. The first movement, Andante molto sostenuto, displays a series of contrasting emotions, alternately moodily melancholic and aggressively energized.  At moments, the manic figures suggest a kind of toccata for cello, and the keyboard, too, moves in excited, jerky convulsions that in the coda suggest a “fate” motif.  The cello part quite soars in a pained ecstasy.  The second movement, Allegretto con moto, has been deemed “the waltz that never was,” according to Rostropovich. Ghostly effects announce a danse macabre or some Mussorgsky-influenced grotesquerie. The cello does swing into a luxuriant melody while the piano injects dotted figures that create tension. The rhythmic displacements and eerie, whining harmonics continue ever so obstinately, and the skeletons have their sarcastic triumph.  Then, a kind of epilogue ensues, a hasty recap of the torment and its surcease, mysterious and unnerving. The finale, Allegro molto, provides a potent perptuum mobile, a blistering ride whose keyboard part constitutes a concerto of its own, often in the character of Prokofiev’s C Major Concerto. The cello intones a kind of demented romance tune, drunk with histrionics. Isserlis illuminates the melodic line with poignant fervor. Isserlis characterizes this music as “electrifying,” and he poses the riddle of why this explosive work does not find more adherents.

Kabalevsky had been commissioned to write a series of test-pieces for the Tchaikovsky Competition, and his three rondos appear chronologically in 1958, 1962, and the one that we hear on this recording, in 1965, the year of Prokofiev’s 75th birthday, had he lived.  This ten-minute elegy captures both the balletic impulse in Prokofiev and his capacity for acerbic, militant, ironic energy. If the music occasionally echoes the finale from Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata, with its winds striding over the graves, the music reveals a sincerity of expression that perhaps exonerates Kabalevsky for those concessions he made to Soviet authoritarianism.

—Gary Lemco