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A Golden Cello Decade, 1878-1888

Steven Isserlis (cello), Connie Shih (piano)
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: July 2021
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Jonathan Allen
Engineered by Arne Akselberg
Release date: November 2022
Total duration: 76 minutes 46 seconds

Cover artwork: Woman in an interior (1910) by Carl Holsøe (1863-1935)
© Sotheby's / akg-images
Please note that physical copies of this album purchased from our website come as CD-R copies rather than commercially pressed CDs. Booklets and other packaging are as normal.

Steven Isserlis has curated another typically imaginative recital, in which all the works date—in one guise or another—from an especially fruitful decade in the history of the cello.


‘Le Beau’s compact and tuneful sonata has been recorded several times but never with anything like the exultant energy on display here. Isserlis pours his heart into the lilting slow movement, and he and Connie Shih seize every opportunity to ratchet up the drama—as at 2'41" in the opening Allegro molto. They bring a similar exuberance to Richard Strauss’s youthful Op 6, heard here in its rarely played original form … Isserlis isn’t the first cellist to adapt [Dvořák's] glorious miniatures for his instrument but I find his account the most persuasive yet, particularly in the melodious sobbing of the final piece. Listen, say, to the vocal quality of his tone at 2'01", at 3'25" and again at the end. The effect is absolutely heart-rending … everything about this release is a pleasure, from the refinement and intensity of the performances to the absolute perfection of the recorded sound. Don’t miss it’ (Gramophone)

‘No cellist alive can match the eloquent intent of Steven Isserlis’s line. Every phrase he threads through the warm embrace of Connie Shih’s pianism is articulated and ‘breathed’ with the ardour of a great vocalist, while his mercurial energy sets alight [Le Beau's] Allegro vivace’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘For me, Le Beau’s Cello Sonata is the discovery that makes the whole recital sing … full of Mendelssohnian spirit, energy, sunshine, melodic joy. Hard to imagine it being more passionately championed than it is here … Kol Nidrei by Bruch is the other highlight here for me and the young Richard Strauss’s Sonata has rarely been made to feel as substantial as it does here’ (BBC Record Review)

‘Isserlis has certainly collected a lovely set of pieces here, (almost) all from the 1880s. As you’d expect, his playing on this release is absolutely without fault … the highlight of this release is easily Luise Adolpha Le Beau’s Cello Sonata, Op 17. A quick online search shows few high-profile recordings of the piece before now, but I’ll eat my hat if this high-octane recording doesn’t push this fabulous work into the repertoire of a few more cellists. It’s intense, moody, and moving—everything you want out of a good sonata, and indeed everything you want out of a good new release, too’ (Limelight, Australia)» More

‘Isserlis is on top form here, playing with lucid intelligence, variegated bow weight and expressive intensity. Shih takes on her burdens with scrupulous clarity and together they form an immaculate team. A fine recording completes the pleasures of this slightly odd-looking but ultimately attractive disc’ (MusicWeb International)

‘Isserlis has a knack for coming up with clever CD concepts, and his latest, A Golden Cello Decade: 1878-1888, is no exception … the extraordinary pianist is Connie Shih. Isserlis says she is his favorite from among his many distinguished (he calls them 'long-suffering') keyboard partners. There is also a lovely cameo by harpist Olivia Jageurs during Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (where the harp appears in the orchestral version). This gorgeous chestnut opens the album with a dramatic flair that never turns maudlin’ (The Arts Fuse, USA)

‘Whatever it was that made the 1880s such an astonishingly fertile moment for cello writing, Isserlis's decision to double down and draw attention to even more works from that decade pays dividends. The original version of the Strauss is a joy, the Kol Nidrei offshoots are fascinating, and the Le Beau is a truly magnificent rediscovery that belongs right at the heart of the repertoire’ (Presto Classical)» More

„„Es regnet nie, aber es schüttet.“ Dieses britische Sprichwort hat Steven Isserlis seinen Ausführungen im Beiheft vorangestellt. Damit möchte er andeuten, dass das Jahrzehnt um 1880 für Cellisten ein goldener Boden ist. In der Tat: die neue Aufnahme bringt sehr unterschiedliche Komponisten zusammen, die alle nochmal eine späte Form der Romantik aufblühen lassen. Isserlis und Connie Shih spielen diese Musik mit viel Wärme im Ton und Lust an der Entdeckung. Ein Album, das erfolgreich wenig bekannte Pfade erkundet“ (WDR 3)

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‘It never rains but it pours’—what a silly expression that is! As if there were no such thing as light rain, or drizzle; but, as we in Britain know all too well, there are indeed such things as downpours. And in musical, and specifically cello and piano, terms, the plethora of music that emerged between 1878 and 1888 could well be described as a downpour. Until that time, cello sonatas of major importance had arrived in a series of relative trickles. Beethoven’s five sonatas were written over three different decades, the last two dating from 1815; Mendelssohn’s two sonatas appeared in 1838 and 1843, Chopin’s in 1846, Brahms’s first in 1866, Saint-Saëns’s first in 1873. Of shorter works, only the (surviving) pieces by Schumann, as well as the slighter productions of Mendelssohn and Chopin, have really made it into the repertoire. It’s a glorious list, true; but hardly a flood, especially when compared to the violin or piano repertoire from the period.

But the cello’s time would come—perhaps in part because cellists became more interested in performing the works of other composers, rather than just their own. (I’m thinking in particular here of Bernhard Romberg, who is reputed to have turned down an offer from Beethoven to write a concerto for him on the grounds that he only wanted to play his own music—though to be fair, that story may well be apocryphal.) Whatever the reason, the decade with which this recording is concerned, 1878-1888, was to see the creation of a remarkably large proportion of the standard pre-twentieth-century cello repertoire. (I could of course have stuck to works from the 1880s, which would have made for a better album title; but I really wanted to include the Le Beau sonata, which, rather inconveniently, dates from 1878.) The sonatas of Grieg and Strauss (second version) both appeared in 1883, Brahms’s second in 1886, and the second printing of Franck’s sonata—in which the work was described as a ‘sonate pour piano et violin ou violoncelle’—in 1887. Furthermore, perhaps the most popular of all shorter works for cello, Fauré’s Élégie and Saint-Saëns’s Le cygne, appeared in 1883 and 1887 respectively. (Cello concertos, curiously, did not follow suit; they had to wait until the heyday of Rostropovich, from 1959 to 1970, for their torrential moment.)

All of these celebrated pieces have been recorded by an endless stream of cellists (including me, with various long-suffering partners); but it is a fact of musical history that every glut of starry works tends to be surrounded by an array of planet-like music from the same period—works not necessarily of major importance in the history of the universe, but often well worth exploring in their own right. Having said which, we begin this recital with an already much-beloved piece, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei—scarcely a rarity; but to this star we append two miniature planets at the end of the album—more on those later. Max Bruch was a German composer whose reputation persists today mostly through two perennially—and deservedly—popular works: his first violin concerto, and the present offering. (A pity, because there are many other fine achievements to his credit.) A good Christian himself, he nevertheless appreciated Jewish music—partly, it seems, due to his friendship with the cantor-in-chief in Berlin at the time, Abraham Jacob Lichtenstein. As Bruch put it: ‘Even though I am a Protestant, as an artist I deeply felt the outstanding beauty of these melodies.’ There were other, more practical reasons at work as well: ‘The success of Kol Nidrei is assured’, Bruch confided to another friend, ‘because all the Jews in the world are for it eo ipso.’ Hmm …

Kol Nidrei is a melody traditionally sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It is not actually a prayer as such, but more like a legal agreement with the Lord, in which vows made over the past year (or alternatively during the next one) are annulled. For this reason the words were treated with suspicion by many religious figures, and various attempts were made to expunge the chant from the service; however, by that point the melody, if not the words, had become so beloved by congregations everywhere that the ban was resisted. Such is the power of music! And powerful it is, its sobbing falling intervals travelling straight to the heart. Perhaps it was Lichtenstein who advised Bruch of the tradition within the service of sounding the melody three times with increasing intensity—a progression faithfully mirrored in Bruch’s version.

The melody itself has quite a complicated history. There are innumerable settings of it, all quite distinctive, perhaps owing to the improvisatory nature of synagogue chant. And as a young teenager I had quite a surprising experience: I was taken to play to the renowned elderly composer and former cellist, by then resident in Israel, Joachim Stutschewsky; the piece I chose to play was none other than Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. Stutschewsky was very gracious about my playing, but objected to my choice of repertoire. The melody, he told me, wasn’t really Jewish at all, but a Spanish one adopted by Jews for self-protection during the Inquisition. (I’m not sure he was correct; but I wasn’t about to argue the point!) When Stutschewsky returned to Israel he composed a new setting, for cello and piano, of an almost completely different Kol Nidrei, which was apparently the Eastern European version. He published it, with a dedication to me—such a lovely gesture from a composer in his eighties to a thirteen-year-old; needless to say, I was thrilled beyond measure.

Authentic or not, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is not all about the famous theme. It is described as an ‘Adagio on Hebrew melodies’; and in fact the second half of the work has nothing whatsoever to do with Kol Nidrei. It is based on a part of the setting by the British–Jewish composer Isaac Nathan (1790-1864) of one of Byron’s famous Hebrew melodies: ‘Oh! weep for those that wept by Babel’s stream’. In this poem Byron (who seems to have alternated between deep sympathy for the Jewish diaspora, and outbursts of anti-Semitism) writes of the desolate plight of the Jewish nation, exiled from its native land. Isaac Nathan claimed that his musical settings of Byron’s poetry were based on ancient Hebraic music. Bruch appears to have believed him; he used this same song as the last of his three Hebräische Gesänge, choral works written around the same time as Kol Nidrei, without making any mention of Nathan’s name in the score. (Nathan, a pugnacious fellow who was a passionate boxing fan, would not, I surmise, have been happy about that, and might have shown his displeasure in rather alarming ways; but in fact he would have had only himself to blame.) The final twist is that this melody appears not to have been Jewish at all, but taken by Nathan from a Northumbrian folk song! Curiouser and curiouser.

Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is a true gem, anyway, whatever its provenance, and fully deserves the popularity it has enjoyed since its premiere in 1881 in Liverpool—where Bruch was then director of the Philharmonic Society—by Robert Hausmann (Brahms’s favourite cellist), under the baton of the composer. As with many shorter nineteenth-century pieces, Kol Nidrei works equally well with orchestral or piano accompaniment. Here we have opted, by and large, for the latter. There is one element of the orchestral texture, however, that (in my view) is irreplaceable—the solo harp part; so we were happy to be able to persuade Olivia to join us for this recording.

A few little footnotes about the planetary extras: Isaac Nathan was, as implied above, a difficult character, who despite the success of the Hebrew melodies and some renown as a singing teacher (his pupils included royalty, and the young Robert Browning) was obliged to emigrate to Australia in 1841. There his fortunes recovered: he composed the first Australian opera, and became known as the father of Australian music. (Among his—literal—descendants was the much-beloved Sir Charles Mackerras.) Alas, his final claim to a place in musical—and transportation—history was as the first person in the southern hemisphere (as far as we know) to be run over, fatally, by a horse-drawn tram. Here, in my (simple) arrangement, is the song of his that inspired Bruch—though, in yet another twist, it was the second phrase, not the opening, that Bruch chose to adapt for cello.

Bruch’s setting of Kol Nidrei was by no means the only one dating from the nineteenth century to be written or adapted for cello. There are several, and we wanted to add one to this recording, for the sake of comparison. At first it seemed logical to choose the one by Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), a major composer of Jewish music, and, like Bruch, a friend of Cantor Lichtenstein (and also, I believe, a distant relative of mine on my mother’s side). In the end, however, we went for the setting by the Polish–German composer Ernst David Wagner (1806-1883), a church organist who evidently did not share his more famous namesake’s anti-Semitism, having arranged several ‘Célébres chants hêbräiques’ [sic]. I have to confess that it was not only the musical qualities of this setting that attracted me; I was also tickled by the thought of how utterly apoplectic his revered namesake would be at the sight of the track-listing on this album: ‘Wagner: Kol Nidrei’. Ha.

So to the sonatas: on 17 December 1880 the magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (originally founded by Schumann) announced—just above an invitation for applications for a music directorship at the rather unpromisingly named Worms am Rhein—that a competition for new works for cello, in various forms ranging from easy pieces to more complex sonatas or concert pieces, was to be held. The judges were to be the distinguished composers Gade and Reinecke, as well as the rather less famous (in our day, at least) Professor Bernuth. Both the fifteen-year-old Richard Strauss and Luise Adolpha Le Beau, twice his age, submitted their sonatas. (Le Beau’s had actually been written a couple of years earlier, while Strauss’s seems to have been composed especially for the competition.) The entries had to be submitted anonymously, but were identified by a motto on the title page, in order that the scores could be returned to the correct composers after the contest. Strauss chose some lines by the poet and playwright Franz Grillparzer (he who had composed both the oration recited at Beethoven’s funeral, and the epitaph for Schubert’s grave): ‘Tonkunst, die vielberedte, / Sie ist zugleich die stumme, / Das einzelne verschweigend, / Gibt sie des Weltalls Summe’ (‘The art of music, much talked of and yet in itself the silent one, concealing the individual while displaying the sum of the universe’). Le Beau chose a rather simpler quote from Goethe: ‘Wenn Ihr’s nicht fühlt, Ihr werdet’s nicht erjagen’ (‘If you do not feel, pursuing it will not help’). (I think it’s fair to say that both sound rather better in German!) In the event, neither sonata was to win. At least Le Beau received a (lesser) prize for another work, her three pieces for cello and piano (Op 24), and found a publisher for her sonata; Strauss came away empty-handed. Surely the only instance in musical history of competition judges making a mistake? Haha …

In fact, Strauss himself shortly thereafter came around to the judges’ point of view, writing to his father: ‘I am of the same opinion as the jury; I would not have given it a prize either.’ By the summer of 1883 he had created a new version of the sonata, with the first movement revised (gaining more than twenty bars in the process), and the second and third movements completely replaced. It was this later version that was published with great success, Strauss himself often performing the piano part in subsequent years. He seems to have disowned the earlier version completely—as did his descendants. I remember asking my former student, now friend and colleague, Daniel Müller-Schott to ask to see it when he visited Strauss’s grandson. The latter showed him the score, but refused to part with a copy. ‘My grandfather didn’t like it, and nor do I’, was his stern explanation (or words to that effect), as Daniel mournfully informed me. Well, it is now published—as of 2020—so that we can judge for ourselves; and I do think that Strauss was too harsh on his own early efforts. Certainly, there are moments of naivety—I can imagine that he might have wanted to rewrite, say, the second main theme of the last movement; but there is so much beauty—far too much to be thrown away! The second subject of the slow movement, for instance, conjures up a magical atmosphere. Much of this movement seems to presage Strauss’s famed vocal lyricism—are there pre-echoes here of ‘Di rigori armato il seno’, the beautiful tenor aria (actually ushered in by a solo cello) in Der Rosenkavalier? And there is plenty of charming Mendelssohnian lightness to be found in the finale, such as the squirrel-like opening; again there seem to be operatic overtones here—in this case, perhaps, a scurrying, Figaro-like overture. (I did, however, make an executive decision to omit the exposition repeat of this finale—apologies to repeat fanatics; but (a) the movement seems to me long enough already, and (b) including it would have meant losing the two Kol Nidrei extras, both of which we really wanted to have on the album.)

Incidentally, the sonata is dedicated to Hanuš Wihan, the Czech cellist who was later to inspire Dvořák’s cello concerto. Strauss and Wihan evidently had a lot in common—including, unfortunately, a passion for Wihan’s wife Dora, five years Strauss’s senior; the affair seems to have led to the break-up of the marriage. One feels sorry for Wihan, especially in light of his subsequent failure to procure the premiere of Dvořák’s concerto; but on the other hand, he did try to insert a ridiculous cadenza of his own into the printed version of that perfect masterpiece, and furthermore had a most unpleasant habit (at least in later life) of spitting on the floor during rehearsals. So maybe we can understand Dora’s predilection …

Moving on to the beguilingly named Luise Adolpha Le Beau (or to give her full title, Luise Caroline Marie Henriette Adolpha Le Beau): despite her surname, Le Beau was in fact German—the daughter of a military officer and his wife who, rather unusually for those days, believed passionately that their daughter should receive a full education. Le Beau’s father, an amateur composer himself, was her first music teacher; he also coached her in science subjects. Later she was to study with several well-known musical figures, including Kalliwoda, Rheinberger and Clara Schumann (although with the latter there were problems—seemingly caused by a major clash of personalities). As a pianist Le Beau undertook a major tour in 1874, but soon realized that concert life was not for her; thereafter composition became her chief preoccupation. Her life appears to have been full of frustrations and conflicts, many of them centred around her struggle to give women a fair chance within her chosen profession; this was at a time when women were rarely allowed a proper musical (or other) education, let alone performance opportunities within the thoroughly male-dominated professional world.

There is no trace of bitterness, however, in this sonata. As in the Strauss, but even more so, the influence of Mendelssohn shines through each movement; but what a positive influence it is! And again in common with the younger man’s sonata, there is one theme in the finale which some may find too naive—in this case the opening subject; but there is also such sunny energy, and so many winning melodies, in the work as a whole, that I find its almost complete neglect inexplicable. (I have to confess that the only reason I know of the sonata is because someone wrote to me on Twitter urging me to look at it! I am grateful to the gentleman in question.) Le Beau said of her own music: ‘It has to be enough to know that one has contributed to building the temple of art to the best of one’s knowledge and ability. Even if I was only allowed to add a few pebbles I always tried to fulfil my artistic obligations.’ I find that a bit too modest; surely more than a pebble—a gem …

Finally: Dvořák’s 4 Romantic Pieces, Op 75, originally for violin and piano—or rather, originally for two violins and viola. It’s a quaint little story, with origins around the beginning of 1887, at a time when Dvořák was living in the same house as a young chemistry student, Josef Kruis; the two were just a couple of doors apart, in fact, so could probably hear each other’s activities quite clearly. In his spare time, Kruis was taking violin lessons with a professional violinist rejoicing in the name of Jan Pelikán. Dvořák, who had for several years earned his living as an orchestral violist, overheard the lessons, and evidently wanted to join in; perhaps, not being blessed with particularly musical children himself, he felt the lack of chamber music in his home life. At any rate, in January 1887 he composed his famous Terzetto for the three of them to play together for their own enjoyment. Alas, there was a problem: the first violin part (or presumably either violin part) proved to be too difficult for the younger man. So Dvořák composed the present Romantic Pieces in their first form: four ballades for two violins and viola, entitling the individual pieces Cavatina, Capriccio, Romance and Elegy (Ballade). Dvořák relished the unusual challenges of writing for amateurs, informing his publisher: ‘I am enjoying the work as much as if I were composing a large symphony.’ Nevertheless, he seems to have realized that the market for pieces for two violins and viola was somewhat limited, since he almost immediately created a fresh version for violin and piano (omitting the titles); it was published as his Opus 75, the original remaining in manuscript. Curiously, when asked by the same publisher, some fourteen years later, whether a second trio for string instruments existed (in addition to the Terzetto), Dvořák rather indignantly denied the accusation: ‘It cannot be the Romantic Pieces, since these were written in the form in which they stand now [i.e. violin and piano]—all other suggestions, I firmly believe, are erroneous.’ Odd … The original was doomed to languish in obscurity until 1938, when the manuscript of the string version finally surfaced, proving Dvořák wrong about his own music. Although I have to say that I personally find the pieces more satisfying with piano, the earlier incarnation is lovely too; and it’s interesting (as well as a touch bewildering for interpreters) to see how dramatically different the dynamic and phrasing marks are from those in the (only very slightly) later version.

In any event, the Romantic Pieces are among Dvořák’s most captivating creations, imbued with a touchingly direct simplicity and beauty. The fourth piece is particularly extraordinary—almost like an early example of minimalism, in its heartbroken way; as Dvořák himself predicted: ‘people will weep here’. The pieces proved popular from the outset, with the review of the first performance, given on 30 March 1887 by the violinist Ondříček with Dvořák himself at the piano, noting that the last piece had to be repeated. Sadly, we appear to have lost the letter in which Dvořák encouraged the idea that the pieces would be at their best arranged for cello; in fact, there’s no hard evidence that he ever said such a thing. But I’m sure he thought it—he must have, surely?

Steven Isserlis © 2022

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