Verdict: "English cellist fuses fire and soul in Russian masterpieces"
Shostakovich's First Concerto is rightly popular, possibly because it so immediately evokes the paranoia of living in Stalinist timesSteven Isserlis is a man with a sprightly and sometimes spiky sense of humour. On his website, among charming literary rambles and a recent, beautifully turned tribute to his teacher Jane Cowan, he discusses enthusiasms that include Fred Bassett cartoon books and lists his hates, from Delius to caviar and tinned tuna.
Isserlis is coy with his recordings. Rather than a checklist of his many releases, we get pithy observations on a select few. At his most wry, he assesses a 1999 set of reissued performances as "a slightly mixed bag -- but it's cheap".
Even without acknowledging seconded appearances on marketing ploys like Music for Dinner Parties and Zen Classics, Isserlis has created a substantial discography.
His new recording of Russian cello concertos with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Jarvi is up with his best. Shostakovich's First Concerto is rightly popular, possibly because it so immediately evokes the paranoia of living in Stalinist times, dramatically caught in its stalking horn solos.
If music could tip-toe, then Isserlis does just that at the beginning, while Jarvi waits patiently to hurl massive crescendos that warn of dangers lurking ahead. How cleverly the almost Elgarian lushness of the second movement underlines the irony of beauty surviving in bleak times.
After this, a masterly five-and-a half-minute Cadenza, a movement in its own right, makes me realise why this cellist's 2007 recording of the Bach solo suites is never far from my player.
Prokofiev's E minor Concerto Opus 58 is a comparative rarity, begun in Europe in 1933 and finished five years later after the composer's return to the Soviet Union.
It may have a troubled history but one can easily sense the thrill that the score's original instigator, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, might have felt were he able to hear Isserlis' effortless navigation of its slippery opening march.
The scherzo of Prokofiev's Allegro giusto is like a sleek thunderbolt, while the musicians' brilliant meld of fire, ice and lyricism perfectly catches the many shifting moods of the 18-minute Theme and Variations that concludes the work.