Elgar’s Cello Concerto is placed first, introduced forthrightly by Steven Isserlis, almost defiantly. His later tenderness is affectingly contrasted, and throughout the first movement he is stoical if confidential to match Elgar’s expressive post-World War One Concerto (1919), which mixes introspective musing and heartache with a scurrying second movement and a striving Finale that eventually reminiscences. Isserlis gives a deeply touching account, the sort that restores faith in a too-often-performed work, here reclaimed as the masterpiece that it is, personal and private, yes, but outgoing in a consoling way without negating buoyancy or go-getting.
There is universal appeal to this reading, thankfully without the mawkishness or exaggeration that some interpreters impose upon it, beautifully recorded (open and natural in a location that is a second home for London orchestras when recording or rehearsing) and sympathetically partnered by the Philharmonia and Paavo Järvi. The last time I felt like this regarding the Elgar, it was also the Philharmonia, Leonard Slatkin conducting and Janos Starker the soloist, for RCA.
Such excellent reproduction and supportive musicianship distinguish the remaining concertante pieces, not least William Walton’s Cello Concerto, written for Piatigorsky, a work that seems to need more than a helping hand to get it recognised fully. It’s a wonderful score, full of colour, melody and emotion, breezing in from the Mediterranean (by 1956 the composer and his wife were living on Ischia), with a brilliant second movement and an ingenious Finale that, for several minutes, separates cellist and orchestra (cadenza-orchestral flare-up-cadenza, 3’39 to 8’58) and reunites them yearningly and leading to a poignant fade-away ending. The warmth and brilliance of Walton’s music is conveyed faithfully, with belief, and with tangibility to the listener, Isserlis yearning in the first movement, attacking the second, and relishing the fantasia aspects of the last. Once again the Philharmonia and Järvi offer a tactile accompaniment, Walton’s virtuoso orchestration a pleasure in itself.
Also included are offerings by Holst, father and daughter. Gustav’s Invocation (1911) begins prayer-like for the cellist. It’s a haunting piece, darkly atmospheric and rising in emotional force. There are some lovely things in the orchestra, oriental and starlit, The Planets not far away. Imogen’s The Fall of the Leaf (1963) is for unaccompanied cello, three studies on an ancient tune, which, Goldberg-like, bookends the whole; what happens in between holds the attention and reflects Isserlis’s commitment to this imaginative music. He also contributes the very readable booklet note. This is a release that can be recommended without reservation.
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
The Fall of the Leaf
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Recorded 14 November 2014 and 10 April 2015 in Henry Wood Hall, London