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Even in Cesar Franck's famous sonata [listen -- track 11, 2:51-4:23], which is to a conservatory student what Hamlet is to a burgeoning actor, this is one duo that refuses to be pigeonholed by tradition. In their hands the continually dovetailing canonic imitation of the concluding Allegretto poco mosso is denied its inherent redundancy, and shorn of any trace of sentimental mawkishness. Indeed, at the big fortissimo climax, they wisely refrain from broadening the tempo, as so many do, by making a meal out of its gluttonous harmonies. Instead, they invigorate tension precisely by maintaining the prevailing tempo, driving things forward energetically without relying on a vacuous or rhapsodic rubato. This is music making, you might say, without carbohydrates, but awash in its own brand of cell building proteins and nutrients.

Only two other recordings of music of Rachmaninoff, at least that I know of, come close to this one in interpretive vision and execution. Cynthia Raim and David Allen Weir's supremely eloquent account of the two-piano suites (Connoisseur Society Records), as well as Michelangeli's celebrated reading of the fourth piano concerto (EMI), share many of the epigrammatic qualities that distinguish Mr Isserlis and Mr Hough's performances. Each of these artists rejects any emphasis on the music's obvious melodramatic dimensions, which some consider more suitable for film noir than concert presentation. (That is the very thing that another great pianist, Claudio Arrau, objected to and disdained in Rachmaninoff's music. But in doing so he failed to appreciate its more salient formal elements, which if properly exploited, satisfy the music's immanent concept with considerable discretion. How ironic, then, that Mr Arrau, who never performed Rachmaninoff, recorded only a single work, the second piano concerto, and did so specifically for a B-movie melodrama starring Elizabeth Taylor. Not surprisingly, however, his approach, like Mr Hough's, was also austere and duly trimmed, as it were, of the rhapsodic fat so many pianists see fit to lavishly emphasize).

For its ease of interplay and generous spirit of give and take, the rapport between Mr Isserlis and Mr Hough is on the order of the clairvoyant. In both the ultra romantic Franck Sonata (originally written for violin in 1886, and also transcribed decades later by Cortot for piano solo), and the no less opulent Rachmaninoff, Mr Hough's lean and elegant readings do nothing to inhibit musical expression, but on the contrary liberate the opaque textures and melodic abundance that has long endeared both works to several generations of listeners.

Mr Isserlis, who is also a professional writer and the author of a children's book, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, contributes liner notes that are at once witty and informative. He explains convincingly why he plays fortissimo at one point in the finale of the Rachmaninoff, where the composer has clearly marked the opposite. Rather than steal Mr Isserlis's thunder and reveal the reason here, I leave it to the listener to indulge Mr Isserlis and draw his own conclusions.

Rebecca Evans is the able soprano who joins the duo in Franck's charming, but seldom played Le Sylphe [listen -- track 7, 3:36-4:48] and Panis Angelicus. Though her participation is as brief as the music she intones, she is privileged indeed to have collaborated in a recording that in time will most certainly become a collector's item.

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


Rachmaninov Franck Cello Sonatas

CDA67376 DDD Stereo NEW RELEASE 77'54" 2003 Hyperion Records Ltd

Steven Isserlis, cello; Stephen Hough, piano; Rebecca Evans, soprano (Le Sylphe and Panis Angelicus only)

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Prelude Op 2 No 1; Oriental Dance Op 2 No 2; Sonata for cello and piano in G minor Op 19; César Franck (1822-1890): Le Sylphe M73; Sonata for cello and piano in A major M8; Panis Angelicus




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