The great Joseph Haydn is well-known for being “father of the symphony”, but several other paternity suits could be brought against him – including one for the cello concerto. His two concertos effectively launched the genre, though they were almost lost to posterity. The 1st Concerto was only rediscovered in 1962, and the 2nd was attributed to a composer no one had heard of – and so ignored.
Thank goodness they were brought back to light, because they are wonderful. The classic versions by Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pré are still available. But it has to be said that they’re showing their age. Nowadays it’s the recordings where soloist and orchestra aim for a lean, graceful, “historically informed” sound which are in fashion, such as the excellent one from Jean-Guihen Queyras and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
Steven Isserlis went down that road himself, in his recording of 1998 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. That was superb, but this new one with Bremen’s first-rate chamber orchestra is even better. It’s more expressive and somehow wiser. The very first notes of the 1st Concerto have a terrific energy, as does the virtuoso passage-work that follows, but Isserlis is too much of a romantic to focus exclusively on the sunny side of the music. He limns the graceful melody of the slow movement with a hint of pathos, and gives the operatic flourishes of the 2nd Concerto a real vocal expressivity. Isserlis often decorates the ends of phrases with little improvised flourishes, and his cadenzas bring out expressive possibilities in the melodies that the composer never thought of.
Alongside the two Haydn concertos are some fascinating rarities. The A major concerto by JS Bach’s son CPE Bach is an astonishing piece, which at one point quotes his father’s anguished F minor Three-part Invention before veering off in a new direction. And the slow movement from Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in G major is an exquisitely tender miniature.