As the centenaries of various events of the First World War are being commemorated, we are reminded of the great battles and the large-scale suffering. To imagine what day-to-day life may have been like in the trenches in Flanders is more difficult, however, 100 years later and with no living survivors of the war to bear witness. Poems and paintings can give us some idea – but, as this disc from Steven Isserlis proves, so can music! The main, more conventional section of the programme is a selection of cello works composed around the time of the war, by composers from three of the countries involved in it: France, Britain and Austria.
This is followed by something rather more unusual, however, as Isserlis exchanges his ‘Marquis de Corberon’ Stradivarius for an instrument that was once played and heard in the trenches of Ypres. Harold Triggs, the owner of this so-called ‘trench cello’, brought it with him to Flanders from England – other soldiers, on both sides of the conflict, constructed their own violins, cellos or flutes on site, from ammunition boxes, pipes and whatever else they could get hold of. These instruments thus become a highly moving testimony to every man’s need for beauty and solace and joy, even in the middle of a battlefield. With the delicate support of Connie Shih on the piano (and in fact even pianos could be found in the trenches, even if not concert grands!), Isserlis and his trench cello transport us, for a brief moment, to a trench near Ypres during a quiet spell between skirmishes, with soldiers resting, writing home, playing cards – and with the help of the music dreaming of a life elsewhere.