The first name you might think of on seeing the cover of this album is that of Rostropovich, for whom Shostakovich and Prokofiev composed some of their greatest music. But these works were created much earlier, sometimes, it would seem, for cellists who were not particularly good.

That is not a problem here. It’s a tribute to Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen that it’s hard to imagine more thoughtful, well-prepared performances. Yet this is also playing in which everything is “in the moment”. Every vivid emotion – passion, anguish, hysteria, vivacity, despair – makes it mark. Mustonen brings a composer’s sensibility to his work, and a deep knowledge of these musical worlds from his other life as conductor. Isserlis is en pointe throughout – this is a tremendous partnership.

The one major work here written for Rostropovich is in some ways the album’s great revelation. I recall a few years ago being dazzled by Gretchaninov’s Cello Sonata, on the Zoe Knighton/Amir Farid album Russian Cello (Move). Kabalevsky’s Sonata in B Flat – much more pungent idiomatically than Gretchaninov’s – is just as absorbing. There is an impassioned melancholy in the opening movement, a ‘haunted ballroom’ quality to the second and a roller-coaster ride of a finale. As Isserlis muses in his absorbing insert notes, it’s a real puzzle that this work is not played more frequently. Mind you, Kabalevsky’s relationship with his fellow Soviet composers – and the Soviet regime –
was complicated, and his reputation as a composer of music for children has probably held back a wider interest in his music.

The disc is programmed so the three chunkiest works come first. If you’re not familiar with Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata
of 1934, its tone might surprise you; this is
before Pravda condemned his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and although there is plenty of caustic wit, gloom and existential angst there is also a lot
of “singing line,” particularly in the opening movement.

The Ballade for Cello and Piano in C Minor, Op. 15 by the young Prokofiev is a rhapsodic, wild-haired work that sinks into an exhausted conclusion. The album’s sequencing means that we’re roused from this torpor by the slow awakening of the Kabalevsky sonata’s opening moments. This is fine programming, as is the journey from the final bars of Prokofiev’s arrangement of an Adagio for cello and piano from Cinderella (tremendously effective) to the elegiac opening of Kabalevsky’s Rondo In Memory Of Prokofiev. Like all the works on this album, it takes you on a tempestuous emotional ride, ending on a note of deep regret, as if to remind you of the pain and disappointment of Prokofiev’s final years, and asking “why did his life have to end this way?”

Composer: Shostakovich, Kabalevsky
Composition: Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D Minor, Prokofiev  Ballade for Cello and Piano in C Minor, Kabalevsky Cello Sonata In B Flat et al 
Performer: Steven Isserlis vc, Olli Mustonen p
Catalogue Number: Hyperion CDA68239