Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Concerto in e minor, Op.58 [36:27] Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Cello Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Op.107 [27:17]
March from ‘Music for Children’ (arr. Gregor Piatigorsky) [1:35]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Frankfurt Radio Hall, 3-4 July 2013 and live Alte Oper Frankfurt,
12-13 December 2013. DDD. Reviewed as lossless download. HYPERION CDA68037 [65:19]
It is good to have a new recording of Prokofiev’s first Cello Concerto
as this is a comparative rarity in recordings. It is much less frequently
heard and recorded than the composer’s Symphony-Concerto, and
the Shostakovich Concerto presented here is a very popular piece recorded
by many players.
Isserlis attacks the opening of the Prokofiev aggressively. He imbues
his playing with great passion and commitment. This bold opening is
taken up just as emphatically by Paavo Järvi and the orchestra until
a more romantic melody appears, played first by the oboe, then flute.
This is soon cast aside by further menacing developments from the cello
This opening movement is played considerably more slowly by Alexander
Ivashkin on Chandos (‘unhesitatingly recommended’ – review).
He sets a darker, more brooding tone but he certainly follows the composer’s
marking andante more closely than Isserlis. There is plenty of
virtuosity from Isserlis at the beginning of the second movement allegro
giusto, but also some intensely lyrical playing towards the end
of the movement.
Ivashkin’s opening of the allegro giusto is playful and witty,
and the lyrical sections are sensitively and musically played, though
everything is considerably slower. Isserlis is constantly pushing forward,
but fortunately the clarity of the Hyperion recording allows every note
to be clearly heard. Isserlis makes big contrasts in moods and his tone
seems richer and less sinewy than that of Ivashkin who does, however,
have a huge palette of tone colours. In the central section, Ivashkin’s
orchestra begins with snarling brass and woodwind, not a very refined
sound here from the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, but nonetheless
one that seems appropriate for this music.
The third movement is a theme with a set of variations which Steven
Isserlis, in his excellent programme notes, likens to the four movements
of a sonata-form structure with additional sections. Each variation
is brilliantly characterised and there is certainly a wide variety of
mood between them, but also sometimes within each one. Isserlis attacks
the scherzo-like second variation with great vehemence but his lyrical
side is well represented in the third. Isserlis and Järvi manage to
bring together all the disparate elements of this extraordinary work
to make a satisfying whole.
The Chandos recording has a very different textural balance from that
achieved by Hyperion. The former has more resonance but less clarity
in the texture. Both these recordings and performances are superb but
very different. Ivashkin couples the first concerto with Prokofiev’s
Symphony-Concerto, creating a more interesting programme perhaps
than Isserlis’s Shostakovich. It is really helpful to have the two Prokofiev
works together and this combination is also available in the magnificent
recording by the excellent Alban Gerhardt: Hyperion again. (‘These splendid
performances serve Prokofiev very well indeed’ – review:
see also DL
Roundup October 2009: Download of the Month). If I had to choose
among the three performances of the concerto discussed here, my first
prize would go to Alban Gerhardt but it’s best to hear all three if
Returning to Steven Isserlis, we move on to more familiar fare with
the First Cello Concerto by Shostakovich. This was written for Rostropovich
in 1959 and I cannot help comparing subsequent performances with those
I heard live by this great artist as well as his several still-available
recordings. Isserlis gives a rather light and jaunty account of the
opening but contrasts this with more troubling sections further on with
shrieking high winds and unexpected strokes on the timpani. There are
notable solo contributions from the principal horn and clarinet and
Isserlis cuts through the texture in the passages of searing orchestral
Rostropovich has a very different tone quality, a thicker and richer
sound, especially noticeable in the higher registers and always with
stunningly perfect intonation. Isserlis, however, is just as effective,
if not more so, in this hard-driven, relentless music.
The second movement is dominated by a melancholic and elegiac melody.
This is movingly played by Isserlis but the honours must be shared with
the soloists as well as the string section of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony
Orchestra. Later the orchestra builds to a magnificent, searing climax.
The recording is excellent, as we can hear in the section which balances
perfectly the harmonics in the cello, gentle violins of the orchestra
and colouring from the celesta. The sad mood of the conclusion is prolonged
into the ensuing cello cadenza, very well executed by our soloist. As
the music increases in speed, the cadenza foreshadows the main theme
of the finale into which it moves inexorably. Isserlis seems in his
element in this hard-hitting, virtuosic music and he and the orchestra
play with great fire, rhythmic energy and passion.
There follows a charming little encore to round off this magnificent
recording, which is particularly valuable for its inclusion of the Prokofiev
First Concerto. The programme notes by Steven Isserlis are interesting
and entertaining. If you need a recording of the two Shostakovich cello
concertos, one of my favourites is that by Maria Kliegel on Naxos 8.550813,
a truly great player in these works and an excellent recording offering
good value too.