Here at last is a recording to persuade sceptics that Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto is not just an interesting but rather drab failure, its themes subsequently ‘rescued’ by being revamped into the more glamorous Symphony-Concerto. Having previously conducted possibly the best recording of the latter work (with soloist Truls Mørk), Paavo Järvi now directs a most dramatic and colourful live performance. This is the Concerto’s third complete recording (and Hyperion’s second), other versions having used chopped and reshaped finales: I doubt anyone who hears the powerful return of the opening theme in this new recording will ever want to hear any of these alternatives again.
Steven Isserlis faces formidable competition; Alexander Ivashkin’s expressive playing (on Chandos), though, is hobbled by his orchestra’s emotionally vacant playing and sluggish tempos. Alban Gerhardt on the earlier Hyperion recording is unquestionably more immaculate, his high harmonics in the finale, for instance, clean-ringing compared to Isserlis’s more husky-toned account. But both Isserlis and Järvi leave their competition standing when it comes to expressive eloquence, and reveal this concerto, completed during the height of Stalin’s purges, as Prokofiev’s most emotionally fraught (not forgetting the hectic roller-coaster of the Second Piano Concerto), all the more troubling for raising so many questions and offering so few resolutions.
The Shostakovich, a work inspired by Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto, is given just as expressive and searching a performance but sounds rather sober and world-weary, missing some of the mischievous qualities found by other performers until the cadenza which Isserlis plays with crazed brilliance.