Prokofiev’s ‘First’ Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op 58 had a troubled existence and found little favour with the public. It was not until an encounter with Mstislav Rostropovich that it was successfully performed. However, Prokofiev had developed doubts about its form and asked Rostropovich to help restructure it. The result was the so-called Sinfonia Concertante, Op 125, a vastly different work, which came in time to entirely eclipse its predecessor. Neither work shows Prokofiev at his creative zenith: the Op. 125 is bizarre and rambling in parts and has never become a repertoire staple.
Steven Isserlis has been one of the world’s leading cellists for a generation and seems artistically incapable of playing a dud note, let alone giving a dud performance, but, when I read one reviewer’s cynical comment on a live Isserlis performance of the original Op 58 (that it was what you exhumed when you’d recorded just about everything else in the cello repertoire), I instinctively agreed.
Isserlis’s liner notes are persuasively eloquent, and although they still have a whiff of special pleading, his sheer panache never diminishes the ruggedness and cartoonish gallows humour of this oddity. He also sounds as though he’s having the fun of Cork.
As he points out, the final movement is as long as the first two combined and contains its own structure of opening, slow section, scherzo and finale, but the work as a whole conveys the feeling of a malevolent overshadowing presence. It manages to convey menace as effectively as Shostakovich, who cited the Sinfonia Concertante as the inspiration for his own much better known First Cello Concerto. (Isserlis wonders whether he was aware of the original piece’s existence.)
These two works are ideal companions. Here, Isserlis conveys the tension and neurasthenic anxiety of the outer movements as graphically as anyone (except perhaps Rostropovich in the famous recording with Ormandy), and is truly heroic and eloquent in the cadenza. If I had to single out one moment among a myriad felicities in the Shostakovich, there is one passage in the second movement where a spectral waltz floats across the soundscape with dancing ghosts, which I have never heard to such eerily magical effect.
Paavo Järvi and his Frankfurt Radio Symphony (making their Hyperion debut) are on top of their game and the sound is excellent. I’d urge everyone to explore this CD.