Fascinating ‘Concept’ album from Isserlis

The Cello in Wartime

Steven Isserlis (cello) & Connie Shih (piano)

For his latest release on BIS, Steven Isserlis is partnered by the Canadian pianist Connie Shih (with whom he toured Australia in 2015) in a range of chamber pieces each written during the period 1913-1917 by Debussy, Bridge, Fauré and Webern. Fascinatingly the CD is completed by the duo playing a few pieces that Harold Triggs might just possibly have played in the trenches on his transportable ‘Trench Cello’*: a popular classic, a popular song of the time, a hymn and an anthem. Unlike the troops in the trenches we have the pleasure of hearing this fascinating instrument, accompanied by Connie Shih’s Steinway. The sound of Hill’s ‘trench cello’ is rich and deep in tone and stands up well when listened to after the main works even if it is no match for the ‘Marquis de Corberon’ Stradivarius on which Steven Isserlis performs the main works!

In Debussy’s Cello Sonata, the cello introduces a theme that takes its character from a Baroque operatic lament, and in due course introduces a theme that alternates between the minor and major tonalities. In a grand musical arch, the fanfare and lamenting themes are repeated, with the fanfare providing a fitting conclusion.

Bridge’s Cello Sonata in D minor, H125  is a two movement piece. The first is full of English pastoral richness but the second movement is much more tumultuous and unsettled, maybe reflecting Bridge’s troubled feelings about the war.

Fauré’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 109 is a late work and somewhat dark, but it is nonetheless quite magical in the way its melodic lines curve mysteriously through the score.

The short Webern pieces are powerful musical distillations that show off the composer’s use of symmetry as a structural device.

This is a wonderul album that deserves to be widely heard. It was a great idea to add the ‘trench cello’ pieces to these wartime works and to provide the detailed accompanying notes. It certainly helps to put the works into context at a time when we are remembering those who fought in the Great War 100 years ago.

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  • Harold Triggs was born in 1886 in Eastbourne. A keen amateur cellist, he joined
    the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club in 1906, and was a valued member for
    about 50 years. Early in the War Harold enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment,
    and in October 1915 was promoted to the rank of Temporary Second Lieutenant.
    At some point he acquired a ‘holiday cello’ of a type made by W. E. Hill and Sons
    around 1900, and it was this instrument that he took to France, where a number of
    young French players had already taken up the idea of playing in the trenches.
    The look of Harold Triggs’s cello when seen from the side is more or less normal
    except for the lack of arching, but from the front or back it is rectangular, as an am –
    mu nition box would be. The neck is secured to the body with a normal mortise
    joint before being fixed to the button at the top of the back with a brass bolt. After
    that it is simple; the fingerboard slides into place on the neck and the top nut is
    added, as are the endpin holder, the tailpiece, the bridge and the strings.
    When the instrument is to travel, the bolt that holds the neck in place is removed
    and the back slides out so that all the fittings can be placed within the box, including the bow in its special slot. The back is then re-attached and everything is ready to
    go. Re-assembling the instrument for playing takes about four minutes.

Charles Beare