This is the third performance of Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto featuring Steven Isserlis that I have heard and each one is superb. In his 1998 RCA recording with Roger Norrington he showed great depth of perception and consummate control of his instrument in the demanding rapid passages. At the English Haydn Festival in 2007 Isserlis joined Anthony Halstead in a dashing account which was daringly fast in the Finale. As fast as possible always seems the ideal speed for that movement and in this Hyperion recording the cellist’s view remains the same. Directing the orchestra, Isserlis communicates his deep understanding of the music with utmost conviction, underpinned by richness of tone and eloquent phrasing, the latter a feature of the Adagio set between a dramatic opening Moderato and an immensely fiery Finale.
There is a curiosity about the last movement of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s delightful A-major Cello Concerto (of which there are also editions with flute or violin as the solo instrument). As is to be expected, the twenty-three-bar opening ritornello also closes the first movement (an eighteenth-century convention) but the equivalent fifty-two-bar introduction to the Finale is played at the end with bars 5-23 omitted. I can think of only one recording in which these bars are restored and Isserlis cannot really be blamed for their omission because the section is not to be found in the Eulenburg score (and I know of no other). In this vivid reading; the lovely Largo is especially intense and the composer’s cadenza, played over held string harmonies, is given a gentle air of mystery – an ideal contrast to the exuberance of what follows. A harpsichord correctly supports the bass line although, as so often in today’s recordings, it is not very evident except in the quiet slow movement.
The opening movement of the D-major Concerto is long, discursive and not at all typical of Haydn’s usual compositional style. It was for some time thought that it was the work of Anton Kraft – Haydn’s cellist in the orchestra at Eszterháza – and although musicologists now dismiss this idea it seems very likely that the influence of Kraft, himself a composer, is nevertheless to be found here. Isserlis avoids the romantic approach sometimes taken and keeps a firm pulse while giving room for expressive phrasing within his unhurried tempos. The cadenzas in both the Haydn Concertos are by Isserlis and he provides a substantial example for the expansive opening movement where, although he begins to divert from the melody that introduces his solo, he knits it into the framework of the music by keeping the same pulse. The two brief remaining movements, each lasting a third the length of the first, are rendered with calm sensitivity – Isserlis’s cadenza to the Adagio being subtle in its shadowed reference to the opening of the work and the pleasing childlike theme of the Finale is given a cheerful bouncing rhythm.
The remaining pieces can be regarded as encores. The Mozart arrangement is taken from a soprano aria and I like the way in which Isserlis suggests that since it has “not the most meaningful of texts” he adapted it for cello. He also writes harsh words about the once-popular Grützmacher arrangement of Boccherini’s B-flat Concerto which replaced the slow movement with another piece, calling it a “Victorian monstrosity”. This prompted Isserlis to include Boccherini’s original Adagio, an elegant piece which, after the repeated opening section, develops the themes in a mysterious way – a surprising yet successful close to a fine display of Isserlis’s art.