ELGAR; WALTON Cello Concertos
One of Steven Isserlis’s earliest triumphs in the recording studio was a wonderfully intuitive account of the Elgar Concerto with Richard Hickox and the LSO (7/89). If this joyously articulate and raptly communicative performance is anything to go by, it’s clear that the intervening decades have only served to heighten and refine his responses to this achingly personal music. With his immaculate technical address and ravishingly songful, mellow tone, Isserlis strikes precisely the right balance between classical strength and private introspection, his contribution as full of radiant spontaneity and tumbling fantasy as one could wish.
He is also blessed in having such a scrupulously attentive partner as Paavo Järvi, who procures playing of the very highest quality from the Philharmonia. Tempi throughout are uniformly well judged. The first movement ideally combines suppleness and purpose, leading into a quicksilver scherzo that eschews any suggestion of hectic flashiness. To the glorious slow movement Isserlis and Järvi bring an unexaggerated depth of feeling, tenderness of expression and simple flow that put me in mind of André Navarra’s 1957 alliance with Barbirolli and the Hallé (a huge personal favourite). The finale, too, is splendid. In the first half, with its beamingly playful echoes of Elgar’s 1913 masterpiece Falstaff, what captivating swagger Isserlis locates in those rolling arpeggios from fig 55 or 3'58" (which really do leap off the page here) – and just listen to the relish with which both soloist and the Philharmonia’s cello section tuck into their irresistible unison line that follows soon afterwards at fig 59 (4'58").
Thereafter, the tingles materialise early (always a good sign) as the shadows begin to lengthen: those devastatingly imploring pages that follow the Poco più lento marking at fig 66 (6'38") really do move to the marrow every time, while that final wistful reminiscence of the Adagio certainly distils the requisite lump-in-the-throat poignancy. All in all, Isserlis’s is the most trenchant and tasteful account of the Elgar to have come my way since Paul Watkins’s with Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos, 7/12), and I feel confident its unstinting appeal will not dwindle with the passing of the years.
The Walton concerto likewise finds these sympathetic artists at the top of their game. Composed in 1956 for Gregor Piatigorsky, it’s a rather more indulgent affair than its counterparts for viola and violin. Not only does it require careful handling if its seductive charms and myriad intricacies are to be fully appreciated, the extended, improvisatory finale can be exceedingly tricky to hold together. In recent months, I’ve been able to wax lyrical about classy renderings from the likes of Paul Watkins (Chandos, 5/15), Li-Wei Qin (who opts for the revised coda that Walton fashioned specially for Piatigorsky in 1975) and Christian Poltéra (ABC Classics and BIS, 1/15). Is this newcomer possibly the finest yet? I’m inclined to think so. After a sultry and intoxicatingly poised opening movement, the central scherzo fairly crackles with wit and ear-pricking detail (how good it is, for instance, to have those harmonic overtones register so subtly in the soloist’s brief col legno passage just before the end).
As for the ambitious finale, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it essayed with a greater combination of stylish teamwork, sinewy thrust and inevitability (both cadenzas, by the way, are riveting). Just occasionally, I found myself craving a fraction greater ambient glow than the acoustic of Southwark’s Henry Wood Hall can muster, though the actual balance is beyond reproach in its wholly realistic perspective.
Two rarities boost the playing time to over 73 minutes. Gustav Holst’s alluring Invocation dates from 1911, when he was preoccupied with his settings of sacred texts from the Hindu Rig Veda. Isserlis himself nicely encapsulates the essence of this music when he writes in the booklet how it ‘has a shimmering, mystical quality that is curiously evocative – exotic, and yet somehow, perhaps because of its calmly modal language, unmistakably English’. Needless to say, it’s exquisitely given here – as is Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf, a solo study of no little resourcefulness and impeccable craft, completed in 1963 and based on Michael Peerson’s eponymous keyboard piece from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.
Make no mistake, every aspect of this enterprise reflects enormous credit on all involved, not least Hyperion’s art department, whose choice of the evocative Study of Westminster Bridge (1878) by Giuseppe Di Nittis (1846-84) to adorn the cover was surely an inspired one. An unmissable release.