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 Recording of the Week  Steven Isserlis plays cello concertos by Elgar and Walton

I have a tremendous new recording from one of my favourite cellists to tell you about this week. For his latest recording on Hyperion, Steven Isserlis pairs the ever-popular concerto of Edward Elgar with the surely not enough known (but equally fine) concerto of William Walton.

Steven Isserlis
Steven Isserlis

Isserlis first recorded the Elgar back in the late 1980s with the late, great Richard Hickox and the LSO. It was (and indeed still is) a very fine recording which I have known and loved since my youth. So, how much has he re-thought the work during the past 25 years? The answer is not dramatically, but everything evolves a little with time, and there is definitely more musical conviction to the phrasing and general direction in the new recording - giving each movement (and indeed the whole work) a tighter and much more defined structure. Some of the accelerandos really go - making the bigger climaxes incredibly exciting, and a slightly general faster tempo in the adagio gives him the space to take extra time on those really special moments. The pianissimos are really magical. I also feel there is a more truthful recorded sound in the new recording. Whereas previously Isserlis sometimes seemed to be playing in a more resonant acoustic than the rest of the orchestra, here everything is perfectly as one, and his exquisite and beautiful silvery tone shines through in all its glory.

Recording the Walton Concerto was I suspect the original impetus behind this disc. Steven clearly loves it and that comes across throughout. From his very first entry we’re immediately plunged into the lyrical and personal work (which Walton himself regarded as superior to both his Violin and Viola Concertos). The long lines, sometimes subdued, and sometimes soaring, sing from Isserlis’s cello in an almost mesmeric way. The central allegro appassionato sparkles with electricity and the virtuosic cadenzas of the last movement are accomplished with real bravura and total commitment. If you don’t know this concerto already, you’re in for a real treat here.

If those two splendid concertos were not enough, the disc also contains the short one-movement Invocation for cello and Orchestra by Gustav Holst. It was a piece whose existence Isserlis first read about in a book and only after repeatedly asking the composer’s daughter Imogen Holst back in the 1980s did he get a cello part with piano reduction to work out how it actually went. This isn’t the first ever recording, but it is the first time Isserlis has recorded it, and with long sweeping phrases, full of impassioned yearning, it suits him perfectly. There is a lovely blend also with the strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Completing this all-British disc is the The Fall of the Leaf by Imogen Holst. For unaccompanied cello, this is a short but moving piece, which portrays both the wind and swaying of the tree but also reflects on the sadness of the leaf falling from it.

I caught up with Steven at his house in London yesterday afternoon to discuss this new disc. We talked about the works, but also stylistic elements of playing Elgar, old recordings and his beloved gut-core cello strings. You can watch that short video here. The disc is released next Friday, and you can pre-order it now. You won’t regret it!

Elgar & Walton: Cello Concertos

Steven Isserlis (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, Paavo Järvi

Available Format: CD