Since cellist Steven Isserlis (50) and pianist-composer Olli Mustonen (40) have been Wigmore Hall chamber-pals for decades, it was to be expected that this new tryst would gel.
And since, despite their advancing years, they are both still kids at heart – the Finnish Mustonen was originally hailed as his country’s Mozart - we could also expect the sparks to fly. And so they did, from the moment they set out across the oblique and shifting terrain inhabited by the cello sonata which Benjamin Britten wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich, as his impulsive first response to meeting him.
There are good reasons to watch these performers, and well as listening to them. While Isserlis keeps his face tilted heavenwards, as though to catch and transmit celestial inspiration, Mustonen does extraordinary things in the air with his hands. They weave arabesques above the keyboard before descending onto the keys; they act as a mute commentary on the sounds he is conjuring. He likens his hand-ballet to a tennis-player’s follow-through, arguing that it’s all part of the encounter between flesh and (what was once) ivory; we hear him, in part, with our eyes.
The ghostly dialogue which opens Britten’s sonata was deftly done, as was the hurrying scherzo which followed; the ‘elegy’ was properly mournful, while the spirited march was redolent of Prokofiev. Mustonen’s precise and emphatic pianism found its foil in Isserlis’s mercurial flights. After which we got the sonata which Mustonen composed for this instrumental combination in 2006: a big-boned work in which chordal progressions with an Orthodox tinge form the bedrock for some highly dramatic shifts in mood, texture, and tempo. It’s an entirely tonal work, yet it feels absolutely fresh – encouraging new proof that the old classical seam is far from exhausted – and the performance did it proud.
The second half of the concert began with Sibelius’s ‘Malinconia’, a desperately declamatory utterance which the composer is said to have dashed off in three hours, under pressure from grief for a dead daughter. It continued with Stravinsky’s charming folk-song arrangement ‘Chanson Russe’, and concluded with Martinu’s first cello sonata, a doom-laden work written as the Nazis closed in on Czechoslovakia in 1939. So the encore came as sweet relief: a piece written by the sixteen-year-old Mustonen, which demonstrated what technical assurance he had - and what a gracefully melodic gift - even at that early age. A young Mozart indeed.