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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello concerto in E minor Op. 85 (1918-1919) [28:04]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
H75 Op. 19 No. 2 (1911) [8:22]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Cello concerto (1956) [27:33]
Imogen HOLST (1907-1984)
The fall of the leaf
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 14 November 2014 (Elgar and Gustav Holst) and 10 April 2015 (Walton and Imogen Holst), Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA68077 [73:01]

I must begin with a confession: I have never really cared for Elgar’s cello concerto. I have not even been won around by the celebrated version by Jacqueline du Pré and Barbirolli – the latter who, as Steven Isserlis reminds us in the sleeve-note he has contributed to his latest recording – played in the orchestra in the first performance and was the soloist in the second. Nor have I greatly cared for the Walton work, which struck me as considerably inferior to his earlier concertos for viola and violin. However, conscious that these were somewhat irrational prejudices, I welcomed the opportunity to review this disc. I have long admired Isserlis’ playing, which combining heart and head, has a rich and luscious tone, like salted caramel. It's a great gift to make the most unpromising material interesting. The presence of Paavo Järvi on the podium was also an incentive; a conductor from outside the British tradition might present these very English works in a more European light. Their collaboration was just what I needed to reconsider both works.

Isserlis treats the Elgar as an opportunity for dialogue with the orchestra, not for grandstanding nor for emotional indulgence. I was reminded of Berlioz’s remark that: ‘One must do most coolly those things which are most fiery’. I would recast that into suggesting that one must do most coolly – to emphasize structure and intellectual coherence – those things, such as this concerto, which are most emotional. The emotion in this work is after all on the surface: it is a very melancholy piece. Isserlis therefore, without pulling any of the punches, lightens the mood and varies the tone, often moving among the orchestra rather in the way the clarinet does in Brahms’s quintet. His instrument is obviously different from the other instruments, but subtly primus inter pares rather than insisting on the right to dominate. It is a more intellectual, less gut-wrenching performance than most, and I like it all the more for that reason.

I can trace my prejudice against Walton’s cello concerto back to Peter J Pirie’s book The English Musical Renaissance (1979) which was also responsible for kindling my enthusiasm for Bax and Bridge. Of this work he says: ‘every trace of Walton’s personality has vanished from the music. The thematic material is weak in the extreme, the harmony trite and dull, the rhythms emasculated’. Harsh words, and indeed somewhat overstated. I should add that Walton himself thought it the best of his three string concertos. The first movement is lyrical rather than dramatic, opening rather like Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. The cello leads throughout and in this movement the orchestra does little more than accompany. The second movement is – unusually for a concerto – a Scherzo, full of those abrupt and nervous figures characteristic of Walton’s scherzos, such as that of the First Symphony. The cello range is very high and the part is full of rapid figuration. The finale is as long as the first two movements put together, a set of free variations on a meandering theme. The orchestral role here is more significant and more virtuosic than in the first two movements. There are also two cadenzas for the soloist. The second of these is followed by a lush, Straussian passage in which, rarely for this work, the cello descends to the depths, while the orchestra has a magical passage evoking bells. This leads to a peaceful ending which revisits themes heard earlier.

I can’t say that I have been completely convinced by this Concerto. The finale in particular does not seem unified. That said, no praise can be too high for Isserlis’s splendid playing, eloquent without being indulgent and technically always in complete command.

In addition to these two big works there are two encores. Gustav Holst’s Invocation is one of his pre-Planets works and belongs to the period when he was particularly interested in Sanskrit literature. His choral hymns from the Rig Veda also date from those years. Isserlis played a role in encouraging Imogen Holst to release this piece for performance. It is a lyrical work in which you can hear anticipations of Venus from The Planets, although the idiom is more lush and not fully formed. Still, it is worth hearing.

Imogen Holst’s Fall of the Leaf is for solo cello. The theme is taken from a keyboard piece by Martin Peerson, the Jacobean composer, from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. The composer provides three variations, the first featuring pizzicato, the second poignant and the third skittery. It is an attractive work.

Paavo Järvi’s conducting seems efficient and supportive though not particularly distinctive. The recordings are clear with the solo cello not balanced too far forward. For some reason Invocation is recorded at a higher level than the rest of the programme.

There are many other recordings of the Elgar and Walton, including an earlier one of the Elgar by Isserlis (LSO/Hickox, Virgin Classics). There are also several of the two coupled together. Holst’s Invocation is a rarer bird; though there are several recordings (Wallfisch; Watkins; Lloyd Webber: RCA and Eloquence) I would particularly commend an all-Holst collection on Lyrita (Baillie). This, however, apart from a Court Lane Music CD, appears to be the only recording of Imogen Holst’s piece. Isserlis, as I mentioned, wrote his own sleeve-note, and very literate, helpful and informative it is. No one who chooses this disc will be disappointed.

Stephen Barber



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