Cellist Steven Isserlis plays on gut strings rather than the standard contemporary metal ones, a preference that limits his dynamic range at the loud end of the spectrum, but to which he remains devoted. The sound of gut strings has a “more human quality,” he said during a concert at Wolf Trap in 2013. Although he is not known principally for historically informed performance (HIP), he does collaborate with early music ensembles and specialists, like the fortepianist Robert Levin, with whom he will play Beethoven’s cello sonatas at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 29.
Another example is his new disc with harpsichordist Richard Egarr, the first recording Isserlis has made with that instrument. The focus is the three sonatas Bach designated for viola da gamba and harpsichord obbligato (BWV 1027 to 1029), pieces that have been played by cellists for a long time. The approach here is neither modernizing nor HIP-obsessed. Since Bach himself adapted at least one of these pieces from his own trio sonata (now numbered as BWV 1039), the versions for viola da gamba and harpsichord seem designed to encourage adaptation to other instruments.
Whatever the recording’s historical merits, Isserlis moves even further into an introspective exploration of his beautiful, voice-like tone, making the cantabile slow movements a particular delight. The final track, an arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” from the “Orgelbüchlein,” shows off Isserlis’s ardent legato in an intensely prayerlike way. Isserlis is occasionally impatient with the fast movements, rushing the pace slightly, the only place where his tone can devolve into an unseemly growl now and again.Isserlis is not especially concerned with historical authenticity in any case. He has adapted the other works on this disc from violin sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and Handel, playing the main melody himself with a second cellist, Robin Michael, on the continuo part. In a rather twee booklet essay, Isserlis addresses his decision to repeat a section of the last movement of the Scarlatti by admitting that there is no evidence either to support or to counter it. That repeat sets off the charming dance in the middle, highlighted by Egarr’s use of a soft, lute-like stop on the harpsichord. As Isserlis puts it, “it just seems to work,” and indeed it does.