The red herring in this line-up was the appearance of Evgeny Kissin and Mikhail Pletnev. Being wrong-footed, however, can produce pleasant surprises: Kissin and Pletnev, two of the finest pianists around, appeared on the menu not as performers but as composers. Steven Isserlis and Alexander Melnikov were the architects of this intriguing makeover of Russian cello sonatas, combining two cornerstones of the repertoire by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov with works by two other pianist-composers not normally noted for their compositions.

Steven Isserlis © Kevin Davis
Steven Isserlis
© Kevin Davis

Shostakovich wrote his Cello Sonata in D minor in 1934 for his friend and recital partner, Viktor Kubatsky, partly to contrast with the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, a piece that they regularly performed together. By the time Shostakovich wrote this early piece, he was already established as a distinctive new voice, and was just a stone’s throw away from his first falling from grace following some damning articles soon to be published in Pravda. He was reverting to a leaner, more simplistic style following a period of writing more fulsome scores, and there are echoes of his twin influences of Mahler and Stravinsky in this piece. It was also written at a time when he had fallen in love with a student, leading to a temporary divorce from his wife. So, with this unsettled domestic and artistic backdrop, Isserlis and Melnikov presented their dynamic and rather lyrical interpretation of this work, taking us skilfully through Shostakovich’s changing personal landscape. Piano and cello took turns in presenting key material, mixing perfunctory plodding with hushed, feathery strokes. The violence and mockery of the Scherzo was exercised by Melnikov’s percussive piano and Isserlis’ fiery and strident cello, demonic and harsh, even in the normally delicate glissando harmonics. This starkly contrasted with the stillness and strained tension of the Largo, revealing a sense of foreboding and regret, and the sardonic bite and bounce of the finale was dished out as witty tongue-in-cheek sniping. But the most striking moment was Isserlis’ and Melnikov’s profound close to the first movement, saturated with pathos.

Steven Isserlis was the dedicatee of Mikhail Pletnev’s 2006 Cello Sonata. It is a tonal and accessible piece with an opening melody not dissimilar to Shostakovich’s, and although it felt more like a collection of ideas, there was no shortage of invention. Isserlis and Melnikov crafted some nice interplay, with impassioned passages and delicacy producing an occasional air of mystery. They were vivacious and virtuosic in the Scherzo with a dainty matter-of-factness, and captured Pletnev’s otherworldliness of the third and final movement, unusually an Adagio, evoking the composer’s “elegy for music”.

In contrast, Evgeny Kissin’s 2017 piece, the single movement Sonata-Ballade, is highly chromatic and concise. Kissin started composing when he was a child, but put it to one side to pursue his performing career before picking it up again more recently. The piece has the two instruments isolated, though sharing the same material, with Isserlis and Melnikov carefully navigating through the brooding narratives of their own parallel paths and sculpting some passages particularly impressively, where intensified climaxes faded away into more subdued tones. 

Moving from the present day back to 1901, and Rachmaninov had just written his Cello Sonata in G minor, at roughly the same time as his popular Piano Concerto no. 2 and with similar levels of heightened Romanticism. With a host of impressive rhapsodic sweeps, Isserlis effortlessly carved through the different moods and sensations of Rachmaninov’s almost symphonic score, with Melnikov imposing in the composer’s characteristic crushing chords and intricate figurations. Their emphasis on drawing out different timbres from both piano and cello reaped rewards, avoiding making the piece sound homogenous, and the ominous undercurrents and elegant sumptuousness of the two middle movements led comfortably to a joyfully exuberant finale, with copious crystalline colour in the piano to complement Isserlis’ grand gestures.

This was a fine display of musicianship, where character, intensity and texture scored higher than refined gloss, rounded off by a fitting encore of Scriabin’s Romance.