Prokofiev began this concerto in Paris in 1934, where he was urged by fellow émigré Gregor Piatigorsky to write such a work. Piatigorsky was enthusiastic over the first movement and the opening of the second but at that point Prokofiev returned to Russia. The work waited until 1938 to be completed in Moscow where it debuted to resounding indifference. The cellist had played it, against the composer’s wishes, as a sentimental piece and the conductor had no opinion. In 1940 its debut in the United States by Koussevitzky and Piatigorsky in Boston was hardly a triumph.
The 1956 recording of the concerto by János Starker and the Philharmonia under Walter Susskind is a polite affair and while beautifully played the overall mood misses the pungency that Prokofiev must have intended. The 1972 performance by Christine Walevska conducted by Eliahu Inbal is a far cry from the Starker, animated and alert and well recorded by Philips.
Recorded in concert in 2013, Steven Isserlis and Paavo Järvi together have set the record straight with new eyes on the score, delivering a fresh, vital interpretation. The first pages of the first movement announce that this is to be a compelling performance. The third movement, a set of theme and variations, is totally engaging, more rhythmic and interesting than previously revealed.
Their Shostakovich, too, is outstanding. One would believe that in his several recordings Rostropovich, the dedicatee, had the field covered. Easygoing tempo and high-spirited playing provide a most attractive alternative, especially with the tidy yet dynamic orchestral collaboration. The sound and wide range of the recording are state of the art. The Prokofiev solo March, arranged by Piatigorsky, is a jaunty little encore.