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A collector's item

Steven Isserlis and
Stephen Hough play
Rachmaninoff and Franck -
admired by

'... the rapport between Mr Isserlis and Mr Hough is on the order of the clairvoyant.'

Rachmaninov - Franck Cello Sonatas. Steven Isserlis and Stephen Hough. © 2003 Hyperion Records Ltd

On the rare occasion a recording comes along that preserves, for generations to come, the playing of an equally rare artist. In the case of this extraordinary recital, there is a bonus: the stratospheric musicianship of two equally gifted collaborators, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Stephen Hough [listen -- track 3, 0:02-1:21].

Mr Isserlis is a remarkable musician, and in Mr Hough, the celebrated pianist, he has found an ideal partner. Hardly one to wear his heart on his sleeve, Mr Isserlis's approach to music, at once vibrant and imaginative, combines the greatest interpretive refinement with near lapidary craftsmanship. Refusing to settle for a beautiful sound or the big gesture, he embraces a kind of tensile athleticism wed to an uncanny ability to illuminate a phrase from within, much in the way that chiaroscuro throws a human subject into lifelike relief.

Mr Isserlis is a throwback of sorts. For his subtle plasticity, rich exploration of compositional events, and command of inflection, he brings to mind the music making of great artists long dead, not the least of whom are the French pianist Alfred Cortot and the Russian conductor Evgeni Mravinsky. Not a measure goes by that isn't exploited for what makes it tick. Perhaps most notable is Mr Isserlis's ability to build and then sustain a climax as if by stealth; just as you think he's reached the apex, he identifies some new and unexpected musical relationship. Indeed, for him music is a shaded mosaic of contrasts that refracts tone just as a prism does light, now illuminating this or that hidden recess.

What sets these performances apart from others is an attitude. Isserlis and Hough treat each of these sonatas as real chamber music, rather than an ersatz piano concerto with cello obbligato, which has become all but the style du jour. That's especially relevant, given that Mr Hough, a super-virtuoso, refuses to show off his technical abilities in the litany of scales and furious fortissimos that populate the work, preferring instead to listen with care to what Mr Isserlis has to say about things. To be sure, Mr Hough's mercurial and civilized playing has its advantages in music laden with so many notes and massive chords that could easily drown out his partner.

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Copyright © 30 November 2003 John Bell Young, Tampa, Florida, USA


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