Steven Isserlis Plays Chopin, Schubert, Franchomme – Steven Isserlis, cello/ Denes Varjon, piano – Hyperion 

by | Nov 26, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

CHOPIN: Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3; Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65; Nie ma czego trzeba, Op. 74, No. 13 (arr. Isserlis); FRANCHOMME: Nocturne in C minor, Op. 15, No. 1; SCHUBERT: Sonata in A minor, D. 821 “Arpeggione”; Nacht und Traeume (arr. Isserlis) – Steven Isserlis, cello/ Denes Varjon, piano – Hyperion CDA68227,  77:21 (9/28/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Recorded 3-5 December 2017, this recital of music by Chopin and Schubert features Steven Isserlis’ painstaking edits of otherwise familiar chamber music: in his postscript to the liner notes, Isserlis berates prior editions of the scores and the many cellist interpreters who mis-appropriate piano texture into the cello part.  Having made his criticism, Isserlis also makes his confession of having adopted a few of Franchomme’s emendations to the Chopin Polonaise from the 1840s edition he prepared with the composer’s approval. For the Cello Sonata, Isserlis made careful study of a number of Chopin versions and sketches, and a fair copy of the cello part by Franchomme, along with decisions to follow Chopin’s tempo marking maestoso for the first movement and piu lento for the trio of the scherzo.

The 1831 Introduction and Polonaise brillante came to be from Chopin’s having met cellist Joseph Merk in Vienna. Though Chopin generally had little regard for contemporary musicians, he expressed enough regard for Merk to call him “the only cellist I respect.” Chopin said of the work that there “…Nothing to it but dazzle, for the salon, for the ladies.” Nevertheless, the fluency and brilliance of the writing convey their own charms, to which the 1851 Erard piano of Denes Varjon adds considerable color. Isserlis’ smooth legato, combined with any number of coloratura flourishes in the keyboard, keep the music moving, active, light, and audaciously seductive.

Portrait of Chopin


The Franchomme Nocturne’s serving as an intermediary between Chopin and Schubert, Isserlis and Varjon perform
this 1838 gem, the first of a set of three. Its easy and mellifluous song allows the cello’s various registers their own melos that ends too soon. The 1847 Cello Sonata by Chopin stands as his most significant chamber work, a piece that combines the breadth of a ballade and the lyrico-dramatic passion of a veiled nationalism. Isserlis comments that the opening motif of the expansive Maestoso bears a strong resemblance to the “Gute Nacht” of the Schubert cycle Winterreise, with its theme of a desolate wanderer, a sentiment well beyond the parameters of what passes as salon music. Chopin’s startling array of emotions here waxes in passion ad wanes in bitter melancholy, especially with the Varjon Erard’s supplying the bass line.  A fierce energy informs the moody Scherzo, whose own doitted rhythms suggest a kind of militancy of spirit. Defiance yields to a waltz-like nostalgia, a trio section that might suggest a lullaby. The melody enjoys a swelling aspect over arpeggios that Tchaikovsky could well admire. The Largo does not match in scope what the same movement does for the B minor Sonata, but its simple, haunting tune allows both instrumentalists their share of serene beauty. The Finale: Allegro boasts three themes, with the piano’s introducing martial dotted rhythm in the opening motif, set against a secondary, spare parlando theme, and then a galloping, dance-figure third theme, which to my mind, inspires aspects of the Grieg Cello Sonata.  Though moments of heroism peek through the clouds, the reigning sentiment seems to be tesknota, a yearning, pained nostalgia, whose late modulation into C minor puts the seal of fate on this epic journey.

Portrait of Fanz Schubert

Franz Schubert,
by Josef Kupelwieser

As an epilogue to his Chopin transports, Isserlis adds a song transcription, one of the Polish Songs of Chopin of 1845. Originally, this song appeared as Dumka in 1840, a dirge-like tune on the words, “I want what I have not,” an expression of tragic resignation on a par with a song by Mahler or the Brahms song “Kein haus, keine Heimat,” Op. 94, No. 5. Now Isserlis and Varjon engage that one salute to the instrument, the arpeggione, better known as the cello-guitar, whose life in music would all have but died out except for Schubert’s 1824 Sonata, conceived as a favor for a friend, Vincent Shuster. A combination of elastic ease and underlying sadness permeates the work, whose opening movement Allegro moderato, Isserlis and Varjon take relatively slowly. The dance element in the movement seems reticent, more inclined to wistful musing. A more comforted spirit rules the intimate E Major Adagio, though in its wanderings into other keys a sadness infiltrates the song, made ever poignant on Isserlis’ 1726 Stradivarius instrument.  The Allegretto in A Major proffers moments both from gypsy life and Vienna. The subdued melancholy endemic to Schubert, however, insinuates itself in a series of parallel sighs in each of the melodies, impelling us to recall Poe’s “Haunted Palace,” where inhabitants “laugh but smile no more.”

Isserlis confesses that upon hearing the Schubert song “Nacht und Traeume,” with words by Matthaeus von Collin, he fell in thrall to its innate voicing for the cello. The poem captures much of the Romantic pantheism of which Schubert partakes, the contemplation of radiant dreams and the night’s comfort. Isserlis calls the music a transport to heaven.

—Gary Lemco

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