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Steven Isserlis (cello) 

British Solo Cello Music
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Tema 'Sacher' (1976) [1:37]
Cello Suite No 3, Op 87 (1971) [23:01]
Themes used in the suite [6:36]
William WALTON (1902-1983)
Theme for a Prince (1969) [1:28]
Passacaglia (1980) [6:39]
John GARDNER (1917-2011)
Coranto pizzicato [3:05]
Frank MERRICK (1886-1981)
Suite in the eighteenth-century style (pre-1935) [33:52]
Thomas ADÉS (b.1971)
Sola (2000) [2:11]
Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano)
rec. August 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA68373 [78:28]

At first sight this is a very odd-looking programme. It consists of several works that could generously be classed as ‘sliver-like’ in length and two large-scale pieces, one central to the twentieth-century solo cello repertoire, and the other making its premiere appearance on disc. Yet there is a certain underpinning logic at work. Britten’s Cello Suite No 3 is prefaced by the very late work he wrote for Paul Sacher whilst Walton’s Passacaglia is itself prefaced by a less-well known and very small morceau that he composed for Prince Charles’ 21st birthday.

Isserlis vests Tema ‘Sacher’ with vigorous intensity and it is, indeed, notwithstanding its compact nature – it is only ninety or so seconds in length – an extrovert piece, despite Britten’s parlous state of health. The Suite had been written in 1971 though it wasn’t until 1974 that it received its premiere, because Rostropovich had suffered a politically motivated touring ban. Isserlis plays it with passionate intensity. Its Lento introduction, profuse with pizzicati, registers each resumption of melancholy, and each succeeding element is full of direct expressive contour whether in the guttural gruffness of the March or the coruscating Dialogo. The Recitativo; Fantastico is precisely projected in its rather macabre way, the Passacaglia – another link with the Walton – bearing a steady weight of intensity. This is another one of Britten’s reverse variational works, like Lachrymae, and it’s very much to the listener’s advantage that Hyperion have tracked each separate section. In addition to this, Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen play the four Russian themes Britten used in the suite. This is certainly not necessary but it is elucidatory and I think people will find it helpful on a number of levels, as the Suite is a tough work to follow.

Walton’s own Passacaglia was composed in 1980. I’ve sometimes found it a doughty, even unrewarding listen but not here. Isserlis really gets to its heart and plays it with a grace that manages to add to, rather than subtract from, its essential strength. It’s also properly exciting too and a major interpretative and instrumental success. The Theme for a Prince is lovely too, and even shorter than Britten’s Tema ‘Sacher’. The consonance of Passacaglias and ‘themes’ underlines the linguistic and musical parallels the disc’s programming throws up.

John Gardner’s Coranto pizzicato is a three-minute charmer, full of fancy and wit, its pizzicati imitating Renaissance lutes. Thomas Adés’ Sola dates from 2000 and has a droll backstory, which Isserlis relates in his booklet notes. I won’t spoil the story.

This leaves the large-scale Suite in the eighteenth-century style to consider. It was composed by Frank Merrick at some point before 1935. Cast in an obviously Baroque format of Ritornelle, Courante, Sarabande, Gavottes I and II, and so on, it attests to his admiration for a kind of generic Handelian element, as it is certainly no homage to Bach. Merrick will be well-known to lovers of British music, both for his compositions and for his enterprising recordings, a number of which have been reissued in recent years by Nimbus in capacious box sets (see review 1 and 2). Much in his suite is flavoursome and of delightful elegance though there is a surfeit of garrulity from time to time and I suspect that had the work been performed Merrick might well have taken a pair of scissors to some sections – the Siciliano and the concluding Gigue, in particular.

I would strongly urge those interested in the composer to read Isserlis’ notes, as he knew Merrick. The teenage Isserlis and the 90-year-old Merrick must have seemed an odd pair when they played through sonatas together. Isserlis relates that they actually recorded both Merrick’s Cello Sonata and this Suite but that both tapes are now lost – he adds ‘probably mercifully’ but I’m not sure the rest of us would agree!

This recital was recorded during lock-down in Henry Wood Hall, London. It may still seem an odd-looking affair to you but there are continuities, coincidences, parallels and surprises in store for the inquisitive collector. Isserlis plays beautifully and is splendidly recorded.

Jonathan Woolf

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