Classical Music on Record: Schumann Cello Concerto, etc Steven Isserlis (cello)

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie/ Christoph Eschenbach (BMG / RCA 09026 68800 2)

Are there still any critics or musicians who think that Schumann's Cello Concerto is weak - or, as one eminent writer (who should have known better) put it, "meagre and stilted"? They should sit down with this disc and prepare to have their consciousnesses forcibly altered. Steven Isserlis's view of the work has been quietly ripening for some time; and now comes this recording, which reveals it as, quite simply, one of the great poetic utterances of the romantic concerto repertoire.

No, it isn't a virtuoso show-piece (though parts of it are difficult enough); this is a unique extended fantasy for soloist and orchestra, its three movements succeeding each other like dream-landscapes. Throughout, there's the wonderful singing tone of Isserlis's cello, gentle and commanding. I don't think I've ever heard him sound so beautiful on record. He seems to understand this work on so many levels - as in a novel or poem one has read and absorbed over and over again. This goes straight to the top of the recommendation list - where it's likely to remain, until such time as he chooses a record the work again.

Isserlis rounds off the disc with some fine Schumann miniatures - the Fantasiestucke, Op 73; the Adagio and Allegro, Op 70; and the Five Pieces in Folk-style, Op 102 - as well as the very appealing Adagio for cello and orchestra by Clara Schumann's half-brother Woldemar Bargiel. And there's a surprise extra: the "Offertorium" from Schumann's virtually unheard Mass in C minor, which allows Isserlis's cello to sing in quietly rapturous duet with soprano Felicity Lott.

There's also (after a mildly surprising three-minute silence) the original ending of the Cello Concerto - not so very different from the familiar version, but it's nice to have the opportunity to substitute it and compare it for effectiveness. Attractive as all these shorter pieces are, the Cello Concerto is what this disc is about, and what ultimately makes it essential listening.

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