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 Recording of the Week  Steven Isserlis plays Dvořák's Cello Concerto

As soon as this week’s disc arrived, I knew it would be something special – Steven Isserlis has plenty of form for re-invigorating well-established works that might sound “done to death” in the hands of a lesser artist, as the reception of his Bach Solo Suites amply demonstrated. It was therefore a safe bet that today’s pre-eminent cellist would bring something equally fresh and new to the much-loved tragic masterpiece that is Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor; and indeed he does, but not in quite the way one might expect.

Steven Isserlis
Steven Isserlis

The overriding impressions I gained in listening to the concerto, right from the outset, were of a confident and majestic treatment of the music, from both orchestra and soloist. The first solo entry so often sounds like the tortured cry of a soul wracked with grief, but here one gets the distinct feeling that Isserlis is bringing his decades of experience to bear, and those first few spread chords, which can sometimes be brash and abrasive, are instead the measured, assured statement of a mature artist with no need for histrionics to prove his credentials.

The shadow of Dvořák’s sister-in-law Josefina Kounic (with whom he was deeply in love before marrying her sister Anna) is ever-present on this disc. Her death caused Dvořák to revise the original rather abrupt and upbeat ending of the concerto into the pensive backward-looking coda that now closes the work, but Isserlis (whose sensitivity to the historical and personal context of this music is clear from his sleeve notes) includes the original ending on the disc as an appendix, as well as the one that is usually heard. Unfortunately one cannot get a full sense of how the original finale would have worked, since only the different material (the final ninety seconds of the work!) is included – which means it feels more like a historical curiosity than a genuine alternative version of the movement.

The fact that I have automatically been referring to “the concerto” just goes to show how easy it is to forget that the great B minor masterpiece is technically the second cello concerto by Dvořák. His first, in A major, was abandoned by the composer in its form for cello and piano, and this is probably partly why it has remained so relatively poorly-known. Two orchestrations have since been produced; here we hear the less commonly-performed of the two, by Günter Raphael (which dates from the 1920s). Although Isserlis’s notes make much of Raphael’s Modernist style and the extent to which he rewrote the concerto, I can’t say I noticed anything artificial or anachronistic about the orchestration. The work’s reputation has probably suffered from being compared to its sibling (whose emotional punch it indeed cannot quite match), but considered as a work in its own right it is a compelling musical experience in which Dvořák’s gift for melody is abundantly evident.

This may be a disc built around performances by Steven Isserlis, but I must confess that for me the most delightful track is the orchestrated version of Dvořák’s own Lied, “Lasst mich allein”, which lacks a solo instrument. Again there is a connection with Josefina: this was reportedly one of her favourite songs, and it is quoted early in the second movement of the B minor concerto. Despite the title (“Leave me alone” is the literal translation), this is not the lament of someone wanting to be left to their grief, but rather a quietly rapturous miniature recalling the mood of “Seit ich ihn gesehen” from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben, and for me was definitely the highlight of this exquisite disc.

Dvořák: Cello Concertos

Steven Isserlis (cello), Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Harding

Available Format: CD