LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Cello Sonata No. 1; Cello Sonata No. 2; Variations concertantes, Op. 17; Assai tranquillo; Lied ohne Worte, Op. 109
PERFORMER: Steven Isserlis (cello)Melvyn Tan (fortepiano)
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 62553 2 DDD
Where have Mendelssohn’s cello sonatas been all this time? Buried amid the boom of a modern piano and the strained brightness of a steel-strung cello struggling to be heard. You do not have to be a lover of Mendelssohn to love these performances. Steven Isserlis on a gut-strung Guadagnini and Melvyn Tan on the fortepiano play with real warmth and charm, achieving a sound and texture of rare perfection.
From the happy gentleness of the Theme and Variations, written at 19, to the rhapsodic Second Sonata, the balance between cello and piano is miraculous. The challenge for the Classical and early Romantic composer was how to balance the powerful tenor cello against the relatively delicate fortepiano. The problem for performers today is quite the opposite, which means we hear many such works ‘upside down’. Here, both cello and piano share a perfectly matched articulation. The cello tone has a depth and purity, offset by Isserlis’s powerful left hand which gives each note a pithy underside, and threads through the soft brightness of the piano in unison passages.
In the final reckoning, however, it is not the sound, but Isserlis’s performances which make this recording. He preserves the mystery even in the two miniatures, playing with a lithe subtlety and instinctive sense of proportion. He can be both jaunty and melancholy in the second movement of the First Sonata, which stands for both scherzo and slow movement. The Second Sonata moves into the realms of the heroic, but the forces are more than up to the organ-like chorale of the Adagio. This may be, in Schumann’s admiring words, ‘music for the most cultivated family circle’, but here the parlour games are played in a celestial mansion. Helen Wallace