Prokofiev began writing his Cello Concerto for the great Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky in the early 1930s. The work was completed after Prokofiev’s 1936 return to Moscow, meaning that Piatigorsky, as a Soviet refugee, was no longer able to give the premiere. Several unsuccessful performances led to the concerto falling into obscurity, until Prokofiev’s post-war decision to rewrite the piece for the young Rostropovich as his Op 125 Symphony-Concerto. Here, Steven Isserlis gives us the composer's first thoughts, and it’s hard to understand why such a dramatic, melodic and approachable work has been so neglected. It grips from the outset, the cello melody heard over a stabbing, ticking ostinato that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. Conductor Paavo Järvi rightly emphasises Prokofiev’s sinuous writing for lower strings and tuba. Things get better still in the central Scherzo, 11 hyperactive minutes sounding like a collection of the best bits of Prokofiev you’ve not yet heard. Isserlis’s gutsy, passionate playing defies belief, notably in the extended finale’s sequence of variations. The concerto’s uncompromising, violent close is devastating—fast major key music which leaves a defiantly bitter aftertaste.
As a coupling, Isserlis and Järvi give us Shostakovich’s taut, compact Cello Concerto No 1. Prokofiev’s concerto is epic and darkly romantic; this one is pithy and ironic. This performance is up with the best; Isserlis’s warm, sonorous tone a real asset in the slow movement and extended cadenza. The Allegro con moto’s riotous close is both witty and disturbing. Isserlis throws in a delicious encore as a palate-cleanser: Piatigorsky’s solo cello arrangement of a short march from Prokofiev’s piano suite Music for Children. Hyperion's engineering is impeccable. Only the cover photo disappoints; a greyish portrait of a sleepy-looking Isserlis contrasts with the dynamism of his playing.