Jed Distler
Gramophone
February 2014

No doubt that Gramophone readers will respond to the name Julius Isserlis by asking, ‘any relation to the cellist?’ Indeed, this composer/pianist was Steven Isserlis’s grandfather, born in 1888 in Kishinev, Russia (nowr Chisinau, Moldova). A student of Sergey Taneyev and Charles-Marie Widor, Scriabin recommended Isserlis as piano soloist for a Carnegie Hall concert that met with great success. After the Revolution, Isserlis departed communist Moscow for Vienna. Having embarked on his first tour of Britain in the same week that the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Isserlis acquired British residency four months later, and rebuilt his career as a pianist and teacher, performing well into his seventies (he died in 1968).

The recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Julius Isserlis prize in 1989, pianist Sam Haywood eventually became friends with the Isserlis family and found a cache of Julius’s piano pieces waiting to be discovered and edited into performing shape. While Russian Romanticism permeates Isserlis’s idiomatic and skilful keyboard-writing, the harmonic language is strikingly akin to composers such as Holst, Bax, Scott and Bowen. The rippling textures of the A minor Capriccio and ‘The lonely brook in the forest’ from Op 11 are cases in point, while the charming ‘The flight of the swallow’ from Op 8 resembles Moszkowski’s Op 72 A flat Etude (the one Horowitz made famous) as rewritten by Delius. Both the Russian Dance and ‘Toccata in Fourths’ from Op 10 showcase Isserlis’s virtuoso aplomb, in contrast to the lyrically tender Warum, dedicated to the memory of Scriabin’s son Julian.

Haywood’s sensitive, nuanced, technically assured interpretations ought to generate interest among pianists seeking out unusual, effective and accessible short pieces. The discs’s centrepiece and most substantial wrork is the multi-thematic Ballade for cello and piano, originally written for Pablo Casals. Guest artist Steven Isserlis’s fervent, big-boned artistry surely does his grandfather’s impassioned cello-writing proud. Hyperion’s superb production makes this disc all the more welcome.