Wartime Cello From Trench To Concert Hall

Review by: David Vernier

isserliscello

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

The hook here is Steven Isserlis’ performances using a “trench cello”–a dismantle-able, portable instrument played by soldiers in First World War trenches–and the recording’s producers came up with a clever way to program it: include some short selections along with several substantial “wartime” cello sonatas, played on a conventional cello (well, as conventional as a 1726 Stradivarius can be!). So, you could say that the two instruments Isserlis plays represent the embodiment of the sublime and the utilitarian, both of them originals (the trench cello being the same one used by Temporary Second Lieutenant Harold Triggs on the battlefields of France 100 years ago).

The story of the trench cello is quite fascinating, and, along with pictures of one of these instruments, both being played and in its dismantled state, help us appreciate the ingenuity and determination of those musicians in the most difficult of circumstances. The four short selections Isserlis and his excellent piano partner Connie Shih perform to give renewed modern voice to this historic instrument are pieces Isserlis imagined Triggs might have played in the trenches–“a popular classic (Saint-Saëns’ The Swan); a popular song of the time (Keep the home-fires burning); a hymn (Jerusalem); and an anthem (God Save the King).” The interesting thing is, at least in Isserlis’ hands, this so-called “trench cello”, its body a rectangular wooden box (like an ammunition box), its neck connected by means of a brass bolt, sounds just like a “real” cello–and any listener, unsuspecting or otherwise, would be unlikely to detect the music’s decidedly unconventional origin.

As for the core of the recording–sonatas by Debussy, Bridge, and Fauré–there’s nothing here that doesn’t have the ring of world-class, that doesn’t measure equally with the existing titles in the catalog. We don’t often hear the Bridge sonata, but–especially its challenging and engaging second movement–it’s as fine a work as anything in the genre by anyone. Each of the three pieces demands sustained intensity from the soloist, thoroughly exploiting the instrument’s wide-ranging expressive capacity, and Isserlis successfully accomplishes that challenge.

While it’s a stretch to assign Webern’s little cello pieces any great importance other than perhaps their representation of a certain very specific style from a particular historical era, their inclusion here does serve a legitimate programmatic purpose–and they’re kind of cool and welcome in their brevity. Isserlis and Shih bring a refreshing energy and discernible rapport to these performances, the highest compliment being that they invite repeated listening.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: The Cello In Wartime
Reference Recording: Debussy: Queyras, Tharaud (HM)

  • Steven Isserlis (cello; trench cello); Connie Shih (piano)

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