Knowledge of the fascinating story behind this music is integral to a thorough appreciation of it. Julius Isserlis (1888-1968) was horn in the Russian province of Moldova, and his prodigious talent as a pianist took him to the Moscow Conservatoire, where after studying with Taneyev he won the gold medal at 16. Scriabin was instrumental in getting him booked at Carnegie Hall, but homesickness took him back to Moscow and a job as the only Jewish teacher in College of the Imperial Philharmonic Society. Post-Revolutionary anti-semitism drove him to Vienna, of whose musical world he became a key figure. The Anschluss was declared while he was touring the UK, and as a result he settled in London.
After being awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Julius Isserlis scholarship, pianist Sam Haywood became friends with Julius’s grandson, the cellist Steven, and chanced to discover manuscripts of some of Julius’s piano compositions. Hence, with the additional ballast of Julius’s sweetly resonant Ballade in a A minor for cello and piano, this CD. It makes for a delightful hour.
If the echoes of Chopin, Rachmaninov, and—in one striking instance—Stravinsky’s Petrushka are loud and clear in these short and often simple character-pieces, that merely reminds us of how those composers were at the centre of Julius’s musical world. His is salon music in the best sense of the word, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s pieces d'occasion (if not with their magic). Haywood’s rubato is delicate and his touch pliantly expressive; when virtuosity is required, he delivers it comfortably, but for the most part he just lets the music's artless charm speak for itself