Steven Isserlis asserts his supremacy in British cello artistry with two major concertos and two unfamiliar works dear to his heart.

ELGAR: Cello Concerto in e minor, Op. 85; WALTON: Cello Concerto; G. HOLST: Invocation, Op. 19, No. 2; I. HOLST: The Fall of the Leaf for Solo Cello – Steven Isserlis, cello/ Philharmonia Orch./ Paavo Jarvi – Hyperion CDA68077, 73:01 (3/4/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

By general consensus, Steven Isserlis (b. 1958) currently reigns as Britain’s finest cellist, and his latest recording of the two major cello concertos – by Elgar (1919) and Walton (1956), respectively – bear witness to a talent that has earned meaningful comparison with the likes of the late Jacqueline du Pre.

Recorded between November 2014 and April 2015, the Hyperion production also provides two relatively unknown pieces, by father Gustav Holst and daughter Imogen, the booklet’s testifying to the latter in Isserlis’ life with a photo of his reviewing the score of the solo The Fall of the Leaf with the composer in 1977.

A colossal energy suffuses the first movement of the Elgar Concerto, marked with a devout melancholy which often rises up in rebellion to the elegiac sensibility of loss. Beyond the sheer sonority of Isserlis’ dialogue with the Philharmonia strings and woodwinds, we hear a feverish intimacy in this poignant, deliberate Moderato, especially as Jarvi elicits a ravishing homogeneity of sound from his low strings. The recitative element reappears in the Lento portion of the second movement, with clarinet and horn adding only to a feeling of desolation. The skittish figures of the Scherzo (Allegro molto) evolve into something like passion tinged by a sense of irony. The magic in the music emerges in the B-flat Major Adagio, as close as Elgar comes to the Mendelssohn ideal “song without words.” Jarvi projects the requisite swagger into the last movement, Allegro, given its “cyclical” appropriation of earlier tunes, including the recitative and a late theme borrowed from the Op. 81 Piano Quintet. The development section pays homage to the Schumann Concerto, no less tinged by mournful heroism. Isserlis projects a tragic pall over the theme from the Adagio, only to allow some hope to emerge from the darkness at the coda, a resonant affirmation of faith after a personal and cosmic holocaust.

William Walton, at the insistence of the great Russian cello virtuoso Gregor Piatagorsky, embarked on his Cello Concerto from 1954-1956, with the premiere taking place in Boston under Charles Munch in January 1957. Optimistic and warmly tonal, the Concerto defies the conventions of the 1950s’ fascination with serial cacophony. The ingratiating interplay of Philharmonia strings, winds, and horns in the opening Moderato has Simon Eadon to thank for his artful engineering. With the addition of clarinet and flute filigree, Isserlis’ own gut-string instrument assumes even warmer projection throughout a sustained paean to the English countryside. Impish wit and lyrical romance color the succeeding Allegro appassionato, where we feel the potent virtuosity Isserlis can muster at will. We feel that the bravura elements had been especially tailored to the Boston Symphony’s capacity for aristocratic color.

The last movement – Tema ed improvivvisazioni: Lento – Allegro molto – adopts a challenging form, set in harmonics and triplet figures for Isserlis, rather elegiac in content, only to have the orchestra fade out for Isserlis to proffer two dazzling cadenzas. The orchestral part proves no less ardent, exploding frenetically and then relenting to the opening, exotic materials for a cyclic, calm conclusion.
The rare 1911 Invocation of Gustav Holst derives from his contemplation of the four Vedas of Hindu mysticism. Set in a modal syntax, the music achieves a shimmering patina that evokes a pantheistic sensuousness. Imogen Holst (1907-1983) conceived her 1963 solo Andante The Fall of the Leaf as a response to a tune from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book by Martin Peerson. The piece is set in a manner like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with a theme that begins and ends the work, and within which three variations or “studies” occur. Holst stated that she wanted something of Julian Bream’s lute to inform the broken pizzicato chords.

—Gary Lemco