HAYDN: Cello Concertos 1 and 2; CPE BACH Cello Concerto in A major; BOCCHERINI Adagio; MOZART – Steven Isserlis, cello. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – Hyperion 

Steven Isserlis = HAYDN Cello Concertos 1 and 2, Hob VIIb:1 and 2. CPE BACH Cello Concerto in A major Wq 172. MOZART “Geme la tortorella” from La finta giardiniera. BOCCHERINI Adagio from Cello Concerto G.480 – Steven Isserlis, cello. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – Hyperion CDA68162, 77:47 (9/1/17) *****:

On an exceptionally well-filled disc, Isserlis makes his first recordings of the two Haydn concertos since 1996, when he did them for RCA with Roger Norrington conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This one features Isserlis himself at the head of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, playing his supremely beautiful Marquis de Corberon “Nelsova” Stradivarius of 1726. Recorded in the orchestra’s hall, the soundstage, space and balance are ideal, just slightly ahead of the band, capturing Isserlis’s tawny cello sound, fingers occasionally slapping against the fingerboard with astonishing dimensionality.

In addition to his relaxed, confident, commanding technique, which seeks musical solutions rather than what will be easiest or most flashy, Isserlis brings a deep knowledge of stylistic options—and buys into, in an entirely 21st century way, the implications and obligations of such knowledge. As it turns out, his performances of the two Haydn concertos also make a strong case for the equivalency of the two, rather than their being strange albeit highly entertaining bedfellows.

Generally speaking, Isserlis broadens out the C major Concerto and, most notably in the development of the first movement, dwells on a very moving sense of repose that is Haydn at his most affectionate, and has been mostly overlooked since the piece was discovered almost half a century ago. It is a gentle performance, though the orchestra moves their part along crisply and engagingly.

Isserlis’s ambitious cadenza for the first movement explores strands of the themes caught up in  the peculiar rhythms Haydn used to deconstruct them himself during the movement; as with the cadenza for the first movement of the D major, it is incongruously cut short, as if Isserlis had been given a sign from the wings, but his crowd-pleasing ending flourish more than compensates.

The second movement moves along amiably enough, haunted by a future world siren’s song of a cadenza, and the finale is exhilaratingly fleet without completely missing the wonderful scenery; backed by the orchestra’s lovingly detailed playing, Isserlis’s virtuosity is particularly splendid because he maintains no fiction that the music is a great technical tour de force, and instead focuses on its exhilarating big picture musical sweep and pleasure.

Where Isserlis’s broadens out the C major Concerto, his lightens up the D Major Concerto with a courtly attitude and an 18th century sense of Enlightenment poetry, and a first movement flights of fancy cadenza firmly rooted in Haydn’s time and yet instinctual, irrational, and spiritual. And gorgeous.

Isserlis’s charming arrangement of the charming Mozart is not only a pleasing musical interlude in which the solo cello flirts unconscionably with the birds, as only Mozart could: with a sensuality under the fastidiously genteel cloak that the best performers inevitably are seduced by themselves, as here.

Heard after either of the Haydn concertos, CPE’s totally A major Concerto is a breath of fresh air, pointing forward and sidestepping, Haydn, to Mozart and Beethoven. Isserlis’s playing is also different, less forced, trusting the music to play itself, and responding to all the musical events with élan, at just the right speeds, and hand in glove with the orchestra. After an unusually dour Largo con sordini, he plays a cadenza of elaborate, sumptuous beauty haunted by low strings, the athletic last movement finds the cellist’s fingers and bow working together in fine style.

To complement the outstanding sounds, Isserlis’s extensive, courtly liner notes lay out context and case as if it were the premise for a Masterpiece Theatre series.

—Laurence Vittes

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