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John TAVENER (b. 1944)
The Protecting Veil (1987) [37:42]
Thrinos, for cello solo (1990) [6:41]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Suite for solo cello No. 3, Op. 87 [22:27] (1971)
Steven Isserlis (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. April 1991, St George’s, Brandon Hill (Threnos/Cello Suite) and May 1991, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road (The Protecting Veil)
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5034302 [74:04]

With this reissue of the classic recording Steven Isserlis made of The Protecting Veil, I now have the chance to compare it directly with a version on Telarc I looked at a while ago; that of I Fiamminghi with France Springuel as solo cellist. That recording, made in the vast acoustic of the Onze Liever Vrouw church in Gent, does have a rather magical aura, and as a production in its own right I would defend it against all comers. The Abbey Road Studio is a special space of a different kind, and it is the sheer waves of energy which the performers produce which generates the kind of results which made this a classic recording. Steven Isserlis is of course a superlative soloist, but France Springuel gives away very little in terms of style and technique. The Abbey Road recording gives more of a chamber music feel to the faux-medieval sounding passages in the second Nativity movement, and there is a feeling of closer intimacy with the sliding glissandi and parlando moments. This doesn’t necessarily translate into heightened impact in the louder sections, and it is here that the Belgian acoustic allows greater space for even the more laboured sections i the composition to breathe and develop. This is music which suits a large acoustic, and while it has its own effect in expanding the dimensions of the studio, I still admire the way the Telarc engineers preserve the sense of space in Gent without sacrificing too much in the way of detail. In the end, Steven Isserlis’s impassioned and articulately communicative solo in movements such as The Incarnation, and the genuinely mournful sounding solo of The Lament of the Mother of God at the Cross make the Virgin Classics recording extra special.

Genuine fans of this work should really have both versions, as the filler tracks are complementary, with a string orchestra version of The Last Sleep of The Virgin on Telarc, and Thrinos on the Virgin CD, oddly subtitled ‘Romance for violin and orchestra’ and given the wrong timing of 17:37 inside the booklet; no doubt a forgotten fag-end from a former release – someone hanging onto the format and forgetting to delete the line. This is a short piece for solo cello, and was written for Steven Isserlis. An ideal companion to The Protecting Veil, this is a slow, timeless threnody which contrasts to the impassioned playing with orchestra, but which continues in a liturgical vein, being more like a personal prayer after the public display of Veil.

Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 might seem a strange choice to accompany these works, but its content is not unconnected. It was written as a tribute to the composer’s Russian friends Rostropovich and Shostakovich, and uses three of the Russian folk songs previously arranged by Tchaikovsky, plus the Russian Kontakion or Hymn for the Departed. The music’s often contemplative and mournful character is well in keeping with Tavener’s pieces, and while there are of course the dedicatee Rostropovich’s own superlative recordings of all of the cello suites available on Decca, Steven Isserlis is a richly expressive advocate of this music. The sustain he manages to get on those pizzicati is quite amazing, and the depth in the recording stands witness to playing of remarkable projection and weight. More than 15 years on, this is still very much a ‘must have’ disc, and one of the mighty handful of those desert island releases which can move the listener, and which still proves itself to be a genuinely memorable listening experience.

Dominy Clements



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