Full marks to Hyperion and, in particular, to Steven Isserlis for the unexpected and imaginative repertoire on this disc: and I refer not to the Elgar and Walton concertos but to the ’cello pieces by the Holsts, father and daughter, which somehow escape mention on the front of the booklet.
You’ll forgive me, then, if I start with what, to me, were two unknown works by the Holsts. The unaccompanied The fall of the leaf, was written in 1963 for an old friend, Pamela Hind o’Malley. A set of studies, or variations, on a theme by the late 16th century composer Martin Peerson, it was played by Isserlis at Imogen Holst’s seventieth birthday concert in 1977. Here he plays it sensitively yet with considerable emotion.
Gustav Holst’s Invocation was written in 1911, and remained unpublished at the time of his death. Isserlis eventually received Imogen’s approval to perform it, in an arrangement with piano, at the 1980 Aldeburgh Festival, and has now recorded it in its original form with orchestra. First performed by May Mukle and the New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald in a concert that also contained Thomas Dunhill’s 1910 ‘Capricious Variations on Salley in our Alley’ (future repertoire for Hyperion?), The Times said that it was ‘effectively scored in a conventional way, but the matter does not sound very new, and the whole work has less individuality than some other of Mr. Von Holst’s compositions’. It is surely far more than that: its scoring clearly comes from the composer of The Planets, and in its eight or so minutes it covers a vast range of highly evocative moods, pensive and dreamy. Placed between the Elgar and Walton concertos on the disc, it proves an ideal stylistic link. Walton’s concerto, written for Gregor Piatigorsky, has received a number of fine recordings in recent years and this is up there with the best of them.
In terms of sheer virtuosity it might well have never been bettered, especially in the second movement, Allegro appassionato, which I have rarely heard played with such apparent ease. Turn to the dedicatee’s recording, made shortly after the work’s première in 1957, and one hears all too readily what a stiff technical challenge the concerto presents. I felt that at the very opening Isserlis was trying to put more into the music than was perhaps there: all seemed a little laboured and to be holding back the ticking quavers of the orchestral accompaniment. To my surprise I found it was played faster than on other recordings: a clear example of pace not being the same thing as speed.
Elgar’s concerto is performed both at the right pace and at the right speeds. Isserlis and the conductor, Paavo Järvi, clearly believe that Elgar knew what he was doing with regard to his markings of speed and expression, and demonstrate that a performance that feels entirely natural and unforced can be produced when the markings are followed rather than ignored. And those markings, too, allow for playing of considerable power and emotion while giving a firm sense of structure to the whole. This must rank as one of the finest of the many performances of the concerto that I have heard. The recording team have, as ever when one sees the name of Andrew Keener as producer, delivered an excellently balanced recorded of clarity and bite, though in the unaccompanied work the microphone has picked up rather too much of Isserlis’s breathing for my liking.
The icing on the cake comes in the form of booklet notes by Isserlis himself, giving not only a ’cellist’s insight into the music, but some fascinating anecdotes of his relationships with Imogen Holst and Piatigorsky.