Steven Isserlis: The Cello in Wartime

review wartime cello x1 cong

After reporting on the news from a century ago every week since war was declared in 1914, we’re seeing the end of the war approaching (if only people in 1917 had been so lucky), and expecting a deluge of war-related products, as the centenary of the end approaches. This one is very good.

Given the number of musical events we reported in the early part of the 20th century (and our proprietor of the time was a noted organist) we were interested to hear this CD, which presents the music of the time, the latter part of the programme played on a trench cello.

Making a crude generalisation, it’s aimed at two audiences. The first part has more gravitas, the sort of music that would be played for the posh folks at home in a fund-raising concert. The last few tracks are what the men in the trenches would listen to. We say crude because we reported many events during the years of WWI and even the grandest concert interspersed serious, moving music with more popular songs and monologues.

The main part of the programme is a selection of cello works composed around the time of the war, by composers from three of the countries involved — France, Britain and Austria. These include Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Bridge’s Sonata for Cello and Piano and Fauré’s Sonata No.1 in D Minor. The cello is an evocative instrument; in this case if you want to imagine the bleakness and sadness of war it’s moving. Or you can just enjoy it as rather sombre but pleasing music.

This section is followed by performances on an instrument that was once played in the trenches of Ypres. Harold Triggs, the owner of trench cello, took it with him to Flanders. Other soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, made their own violins, cellos or flutes from ammunition boxes, pipes and whatever else they could get hold of.

This section is represented by tunes you can well imagine being played by the men in the trenches, sitting together, thinking of home and loved ones, possibly with a tear in their collective eye. This section includes Jerusalem, Keep The Home Fires Burning and God Save The King.

Connie Shih accompanies on piano (pianos could be found in the trenches, even if not concert grands). Out now on BIS, 2312.

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