HAYDN; CPE BACH Cello Concertos (Isserlis)
It’s a comparatively rare event for an artist to be afforded the luxury of recording a major work for a second time. Or indeed for them to want to. So it’s always interesting when this does happen, especially if their first recording holds up well to the test of time. That’s certainly the case in this particular instance, as many readers will still be enjoying the elegant readings of Haydn’s two cello concertos that Steven Isserlis made in 1998 with Sir Roger Norrington and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
So you might wonder why Isserlis has revisited these works almost 20 years on. More importantly, have his interpretations changed all that much? After all, there’s so little difference between Rostropovich’s 1964 and 1975 recordings of the First Concerto (which I believe is the only other instance of a cellist re-recording either of the Haydns) that you’re slightly left wondering why he revisited it.
Isserlis doesn’t discuss his reasons in his cheerfully irreverent and hugely informative booklet note, but in truth the moment you press play you’re not really going to care anyway, because this is absolutely wonderful stuff. As for whether the interpretations have changed, the answer is a gloriously two-pronged ‘yes and no’, because these interpretations sing of an artist still thoroughly in tune with his previous thoughts, but who is keen to develop those ideas further. He’s been supported every step of his way in this pursuit by the warmly responsive Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and indeed by the expertly judged subtle glow of the sound engineering.
The tempos are a case in point. Back in 1998 these were a story of breakneck speeds being eschewed, while at the same time giving the distinct impression in the fast movements of heightened drama and momentum. Fast-forward to 2017 and that original approach has generally been cleaved to; but while the differences in duration are negligible, they all involve the addition rather than the subtraction of seconds. The C major’s third movement is a particularly golden example because here, despite the addition of 12 seconds to the previous recording’s still comparatively unhurried 7'04", what you hear is an exciting lift in virtuosity and velocity – proof that the perception of speed and acceleration is about far more than mere metronome markings.
The theme continues with the tone, articulation and rhythmic articulation. Isserlis’s former combination of singing legato and short, period-aware attack are still evident, but with their beauty if anything heightened, and some of the faster figures are now further coloured by the odd bit of deliciously impish, rhythmic skittishness.
What has taken a decidedly upwards whoosh is the sheer confidence and unabashed personality on show, and this is typified by the fresh cadenzas Isserlis has written to supplant his earlier ones; although these are every bit as Haydnesque as before, they also take a few more ear-popping risks. Most striking of all is the C major Concerto first movement’s cadenza, which features an out-of-the-blue two-octave swoop from E4 up to the extreme heights of E6. It’s more flamboyant than pretty, but one can’t help but feel it would have drawn a smile from fun-loving Haydn. Furthermore, Isserlis then provides a beautiful complement with the following central movement’s cadenza: a small but perfectly formed creation that glides in seductively by way of double-stopped strokes, and then finishes by gently mirroring that first-movement rocket-spring with a tender single-octave leap.
Isserlis’s celebration of the cello’s top register truly flowers in the D major Concerto, possibly in recognition of the fact that Haydn probably wrote this work for the Esterházy orchestra’s high-register-loving cello virtuoso Antonín Kraft. Isserlis’s first-movement cadenza in particular contains lofty lines of a piercing, ringing sweetness. It’s not all sunny sweetness by any means; one of the recording’s most heart-stopping moments comes in the first movement where, at 8'27", the cloudless beauty is momentarily shattered by a pair of searing-toned, upwards gasps of pain.
For the disc’s additional offerings, Isserlis has looked to contemporaneous works by some of Haydn’s colleagues. Two of these are of the bonbon-proportioned (and tasting) variety: the Adagio from Boccherini’s G major Concerto, and Isserlis’s own idiomatic and delightful solo arrangement of Mozart’s aria ‘Geme la tortorella’ from La finta giardiniera. However, the meatiest and most revelatory highlight of the three is CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major; revelatory because we’ve largely been conditioned to hearing this composer’s music presented as muscular, angular and wild. Yet, while Isserlis does recognise the music’s volatility, his delivery emphasises a Haydnesque refinement and elegance that throw an entirely new perspective on the concerto. In fact the recording is worth your money for the Bach alone.
Of course, the main selling point is the two Haydn concertos, and this album is worth acquiring whether you’re yet to own a recording of these masterpieces or your collection is already bulging with them. Isserlis’s 1998 recording remains classy stuff, but this has superbly trumped it.