Geoffrey Molyneux
MusicWeb International
March 2015

It is good to have a new recording of Prokofiev’s first Cello Concerto as this is a comparative rarity in recordings. It is much less frequently heard and recorded than the composer’s Symphony-Concerto, and the Shostakovich Concerto presented here is a very popular piece recorded by many players.

Isserlis attacks the opening of the Prokofiev aggressively. He imbues his playing with great passion and commitment. This bold opening is taken up just as emphatically by Paavo Järvi and the orchestra until a more romantic melody appears, played first by the oboe, then flute. This is soon cast aside by further menacing developments from the cello and orchestra.

This opening movement is played considerably more slowly by Alexander Ivashkin on Chandos. He sets a darker, more brooding tone but he certainly follows the composer’s marking andante more closely than Isserlis. There is plenty of virtuosity from Isserlis at the beginning of the second movement allegro giusto, but also some intensely lyrical playing towards the end of the movement.

Ivashkin’s opening of the allegro giusto is playful and witty, and the lyrical sections are sensitively and musically played, though everything is considerably slower. Isserlis is constantly pushing forward, but fortunately the clarity of the Hyperion recording allows every note to be clearly heard. Isserlis makes big contrasts in moods and his tone seems richer and less sinewy than that of Ivashkin who does, however, have a huge palette of tone colours. In the central section, Ivashkin’s orchestra begins with snarling brass and woodwind, not a very refined sound here from the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, but nonetheless one that seems appropriate for this music.

The third movement is a theme with a set of variations which Steven Isserlis, in his excellent programme notes, likens to the four movements of a sonata-form structure with additional sections. Each variation is brilliantly characterised and there is certainly a wide variety of mood between them, but also sometimes within each one. Isserlis attacks the scherzo-like second variation with great vehemence but his lyrical side is well represented in the third. Isserlis and Järvi manage to bring together all the disparate elements of this extraordinary work to make a satisfying whole.

The Chandos recording has a very different textural balance from that achieved by Hyperion. The former has more resonance but less clarity in the texture. Both these recordings and performances are superb but very different. Ivashkin couples the first concerto with Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto, creating a more interesting programme perhaps than Isserlis’s Shostakovich. It is really helpful to have the two Prokofiev works together and this combination is also available in the magnificent recording by the excellent Alban Gerhardt: Hyperion again. (‘These splendid performances serve Prokofiev very well indeed’ review: see also DL Roundup October 2009: Download of the Month). If I had to choose among the three performances of the concerto discussed here, my first prize would go to Alban Gerhardt but it’s best to hear all three if possible.

Returning to Steven Isserlis, we move on to more familiar fare with the First Cello Concerto by Shostakovich. This was written for Rostropovich in 1959 and I cannot help comparing subsequent performances with those I heard live by this great artist as well as his several still-available recordings. Isserlis gives a rather light and jaunty account of the opening but contrasts this with more troubling sections further on with shrieking high winds and unexpected strokes on the timpani. There are notable solo contributions from the principal horn and clarinet and Isserlis cuts through the texture in the passages of searing orchestral heat.

Rostropovich has a very different tone quality, a thicker and richer sound, especially noticeable in the higher registers and always with stunningly perfect intonation. Isserlis, however, is just as effective, if not more so, in this hard-driven, relentless music.

The second movement is dominated by a melancholic and elegiac melody. This is movingly played by Isserlis but the honours must be shared with the soloists as well as the string section of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Later the orchestra builds to a magnificent, searing climax. The recording is excellent, as we can hear in the section which balances perfectly the harmonics in the cello, gentle violins of the orchestra and colouring from the celesta. The sad mood of the conclusion is prolonged into the ensuing cello cadenza, very well executed by our soloist. As the music increases in speed, the cadenza foreshadows the main theme of the finale into which it moves inexorably. Isserlis seems in his element in this hard-hitting, virtuosic music and he and the orchestra play with great fire, rhythmic energy and passion.

There follows a charming little encore to round off this magnificent recording, which is particularly valuable for its inclusion of the Prokofiev First Concerto. The programme notes by Steven Isserlis are interesting and entertaining. If you need a recording of the two Shostakovich cello concertos, one of my favourites is that by Maria Kliegel on Naxos 8.550813, a truly great player in these works and an excellent recording offering good value too.