Deranged nuns, inveterate gamblers and fairytale princesses are stock-in-trade characters for Prokofiev’s operas, and it doesn’t take a wild imaginative leap to hear such fantastical characters peopling the busy, welcoming sprawl of his Cello Concerto like a comic-book city. It's thanks to Steven Isserlis, who makes a piece with a chequered history and ‘difficult’ reputation sound like a masterpiece completely characteristic of its creator.
In his hands, the yearning melody of the opening Andante is worthy of Romeo and Juliet (also composed in the mid-1930s), while the Scherzo’s rough humour jabs you in the ribs like a red-nosed joker from Gogol thanks to punchy support from the winds of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Even the rambling variations of the finale are held together with a very timely narrative of one man against many, elucidated by Isserlis in a passionately argued booklet note: 'The better I know it, the more I love it', he says, and sympathetic listeners will feel the same.
Shostakovich’s First Concerto may require less personal advocacy, but Isserlis steps out from Rostropovich's bear-like shadow in this music to present another confrontation between individuality and the mechanistic forces of unknowable power. There’s a wonderful moment in the second movement where a waltz drifts in like a ghost orchestra in a deserted ballroom, and Paavo Järvi works hand in glove with his soloist throughout, offering more positive and detailed support than Isserlis received on a recent DVD of the work with different accompanists. It’s an unmissable disc.