Back in 2004, when he was visiting this country, Steven Isserlis told me categorically that Elgar and Walton had written two of the finest cello concertos of the 20th century. How pleasing it is to have these works paired on the English cellist's new Hyperion album with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Paavo Jarvi.
Isserlis recorded the Elgar back in 1994 on Virgin Classics and revisiting it, there is a considerably wider emotional range in his response. This can be heard from the very opening bars where darkness is tempered by soulful light.
Impeccable lyricism carries Isserlis aloft into the main Moderato section, in which he pursues an almost nocturne-like melancholy, in between the storming stoicism of Jarvi's orchestral tutti.
How well Isserlis understands the important improvisatory touches in this work and we follow him, note by note, phrase by phrase, as we might an eloquent speaker or actor, especially in the sighing Adagio, with its sobbing portamenti.
Walton's concerto, which Aucklanders have been fortunate enough to hear twice in concert during the last year, is a delight. Few cellists could match the sense of playful engagement between soloist and the orchestra around him.
This album is generously completed with two works from one of the most distinguished father-daughter teams in music.
While some of Elgar's darkness comes from looking back at the horrors of World War I, Gustav Holst's 1911 Invocation is a sunny and welcoming piece, reflecting the composer's immersion in the Sanskrit language and culture during this period.
Unpublished when Isserlis premiered it in 1980, Invocation now receives what must be its definitive recording. In his exemplary booklet essay, he pays tribute to Imogen Holst as his teacher and a composer overshadowed by the men around her. Her The Fall of the Leaf is a solo piece, written as late as 1963, and autumnal leaves, now a common sight around Auckland streets, have never danced and tumbled so gracefully as do these under the fingers and bows of this fine cellist.
Elgar & Walton, Cello Concertos
(Hyperion, through Ode Records)
Verdict: A superb and generous collection of the very best of English cello music.