When the First World War broke out in 1914, a young musician, Harold Triggs, soon found himself serving with the Royal Sussex Regiment in the trenches of the Western Front. He took with him a “holiday cello”, which looks from the outside like a simple wooden box. Inside the box, we find a neck, bow, and strings; within minutes, one can have a functional cello. Triggs carried his instrument around France for the duration of the war. It would not have seemed out of place – many soldiers constructed instruments from spare parts and scrap materials on the front.
The faithful instrument stayed with Triggs until 1962 when he sold it to the violin expert, Charles Beare, who has restored it to full functionality in more recent years. Enter Steven Isserlis, who was introduced to the ‘Trench Cello’ and subsequently took it with him on a series of performances in 2014. Now, a much wider audience will be treated to the story of this unique instrument on an imaginative new companion to Isserlis’ 2013 BIS release, In The Shadow of War.
On the first part of the album, Isserlis performs – with Connie Shih on piano – wartime compositions by Debussy, Bridge, Fauré, and Webern, whose works represent France, Britain and Austria – key nations involved in the First World War. For this more traditional program – with Webern’s contribution providing a sinister interlude – Isserlis plays his Stradivarius with the passion, sensitivity and mastery we have come to expect.
For the final four pieces, Isserlis has selected the sorts of hymns and traditional tunes Triggs himself might have played to his countrymen at Ypres, and it is on this section of the recording that the Trench Cello’s “shy, soft tone” is revealed. There is an innocence to this instrument, and one can imagine the homesickness a soldier on the Western Front might have experienced upon hearing it played. These short performances contrast with the grandeur and power of the preceding section; together they remind us of both the terror and the humanity of war. As Isserlis writes: “What horrors this cello must have witnessed! But yet, one can feel that its spirit is calm, gentle. It must have felt like a small voice of sanity in a world gone mad. Actually, it still does.”
The Cello in Wartime has to be one of the more original, conceptually sophisticated and musically satisfying recordings made to mark the centenary of the ending of the First World War.