Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) arr. Sally Beamish (2006) Suite pour Violoncelle et Orchestre [20:07]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) arr. Richard Tognetti (2008) Deux mélodies hébraïques [6:35]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) arr. Vladimir Blok (1996) Concertino for Violoncello and Orchestra, Op.132 [19:25]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959) arr. Christopher Palmer (1990) From Jewish Life (1924) [10:49]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Gábor Takács-Nagy
rec. November 2009, Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland.
No doubt hypnotised by the cleverness of the title reVisions, this isn’t so much an album of revisions as arrangements. We could have had Steven Isserlis sitting comfortably at a rustic stove, and called the thing arRANGEments, or placed him in a WWII setting and called re-orchestRATIONS. I fear we would however be drifting ever further from the undoubtedly serious and poetic content of this beautifully prepared and performed disc, so I shall climb down from my pedantic hobby horse and get to business.
The programme begins with the most extreme re-working in the programme, creating something new from a piece of which only remnants survive. Debussy wrote a Suite for Cello and Orchestra at the age of 19. With only one movement actually extant, the Intermezzo, which was re-made into a piece for cello and piano, Sally Beamish had to create a work from other pieces by Debussy, incorporating a Scherzo which is thought may also have come from the suite, and is at least its contemporary. Steven Isserlis’s booklet notes describe the origins of each movement, but despite the fragmentary gathering of disparate items from the dusty bottom of Debussy’s drawers, this turns out to be a highly effective little suite. The orchestration can sound a little on the glittery side, some of the percussion reviving school orchestra associations, but it is most certainly never dull. There is a lovely moment 1:15 into the final Danse bohémienne where Isserlis plays voice to the bass clarinet in a kind of Slam Stewart tribute duet. Isserlis promises to eat his hat if it doesn’t enter the cello repertoire, but it doesn’t look as if he is about to start wearing one.
Darker and more atmospheric is Richard Tognetti’s arrangement of Ravel’s Deux mélodies hébraïques. These two movements were originally for soprano and piano, and later arranged by Ravel for soprano and orchestra. Isserlis asked Tognetti to make a version with strings to give him something to play while on a tour of Australia in 2008, and with the addition of a harp for this recording this is a happy confluence of circumstance which works very well indeed. Isserlis revels in the depth of feeling in the mournful Kaddish, and the miniature second movement is also a potent enigma.
The Prokofiev Concertino gives rise to a marvellous anecdote, in which Isserlis is collared and nearly flattened by Rostropovich, who opposed the re-working of a piece already orchestrated for him by Kabalevsky. Vladimir Blok’s lighter, more chamber-orchestra version has appeared on CD before, and there is a recording with Raphael Wallfisch on the Nimbus label which I quite liked a while ago. Listening again the balance of the orchestra is perhaps a little too recessed by comparison. The BIS recording is fuller and the strings better disciplined, so in the end this newer release does come away with the laurels. Despite the Concertino title and re-orchestration, it remains quite a tough piece in places, the Tapiola Sinfonietta and Steven Isserlis bringing out more of that Russian ‘soul’ than I’ve heard before. Isserlis has removed the final brass entry at the end of the first movement, but comparing this light percussion cadence with the fairly subtle brass chords which appear in the Wallfisch recording there isn’t that much to make a much fuss about. What can be made a fuss about is the gorgeous warmth of the central Andante, and the witty winds in the final Allegretto, and this is a very fine performance indeed.
The programme ends with Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life, a recreation of Jewish musical style and feeling but without the use of pre-existing Jewish melodies. Originally for cello and piano, this is another arrangement which works extremely well, the atmosphere of sustained strings creating a texture over which the solo cello can emerge with improvisatory and declamatory passion. Isserlis changes the order of the movements in his performances, determined to have the Prayer as a final movement. One can debate the merits or demerits of this, or just re-programme your player if it bothers you. With this ending you do get a sort of timeless final unanswered question in tonal terms, something which is not resolved in the central Supplication in any case, so you won’t hear me complaining, especially where the musicianship is so heartfelt and expressive as here.
BIS has produced yet another superbly engineered SACD recording with reVisions. The whole thing oozes quality, and the programme works very well both as a concept and in practical terms. Only the Debussy sticks out as being a bit too Hollywood, but as an opener it works well enough. If you like your music atmospheric, emotionally charged and passionate, then this is a disc to be treasured. The Tapiola Sinfonietta is a crack bunch of musicians, and Gábor Takács-Nagy a sensitive accompanist to Steven Isserlis’s powerful but never overbearing solos.
Beautiful production and performance.