However Pablo Casals celebrated his birthdays – and he had 96 of them before his death in 1973 – there could be no happier a tribute on the 125th anniversary of his birth than a recital of some of the cello pieces inspired by him. Since it was in Bach that Casals found the key to his musical life and in Beethoven that he discovered a temperament ideally matched to his legendary technique and lucid emotional character, these two composers framed the programme devised by Steven Isserlis.
But how does another player pay tribute to the greatest cellist the world has ever known without sacrificing his own artistic sensibility? Isserlis, after all, is admired as an artist unafraid of expressing himself individually, intensely and even audaciously. In the little A minor Adagio from BWV564, imaginatively linked to a Bachian Prelude by the Hungarian born Emanuel Moór, Isserlis's subtly flexible phrasing and textural clarity reminded us that he is incapable of being untrue to himself. But the unforced interpretative overview he and the pianist Ian Brown succeeded in bringing to a disparate group of composers surely owed much to Casals' own curiosity and spirit.
This is hardly the occasion on which to question the Catalan's musical taste or the composers he championed but it is telling that most of the works written with his special sound and musicianship in mind haven't found their way into the repertoire of subsequent generations of cellists. Even the composers' names ring only the most distant of bells in the case of Emanuel Moór and Julius Röntgen and, despite a whole Edinburgh Festival concert rashly devoted to his music (including his Cello Concerto), Donald Tovey is best known as an essayist. Fauré's gentle Sérénade has fared better, surviving in concert programmes and, thanks to Isserlis, on disc. But I'm willing to bet that Isserlis won't be able to resist airing Gaspar Cassado's Requiebros again and again. Its whimsical shifts of colour, dazzling flourishes and passionate Spanish personality, vividly etched here in Ian Brown's strumming accompaniment, clearly touch a chord in Isserlis.
Tovey's appealing Elegiac Variations (1909) deserve a wider audience. A composer whom Tovey enthusiastically championed was the half-Dutch, half-German Julius Röntgen. His unpublished Sonata of 1905 adds up to more than the apparent influences of Brahms and Grieg in the composer's detailed and surprisingly daring working of some very attractive material.
With Beethoven's C major Cello Sonata, however, came the clear impression, only hinted at in most of the preceding pieces, of music fighting to get out, and of a voice demanding to be heard. The listener couldn't fail to be aware of the music's dramatic shape and cogent argument in a reading distinguished by natural lyricism and affection.
Finally came the soaring Song of the Birds, the Catalan folksong with which Casals used to finish his concerts. If the cellist could tear himself away from the birthday celebrations in heaven he would surely have been touched and delighted by the earthly ones at Wigmore Hall.