Steven Isserlis

In the Shadow of War

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It's hard to find pieces of 20th century music that do justice to the wars of the period, but the music on this very fine release by the fearless British cellist Steven Isserlis does so, as much because of the combination of the pieces as because of their individual virtues. The three pieces, for cello and orchestra, embody three different attitudes toward war, as well as three different conceptions of the relationship between soloist and orchestra. The final work, Stephen Hough's The Loneliest Wilderness (2005), was recorded at a different place and with a different orchestra (the Tapiola Sinfonietta) than the other two works and seems to have been added on, yet it is Isserlis' genius to see how well this unorthodox move would work. The program opens with Ernest Bloch's popular Schelomo (1916): not a work about war but a wartime work that pushed the composer deeper into his own Jewish heritage. The work has been accused of being excessively cinematic, but, as Isserlis points out in his excellent notes, the influence went the other way: a generation of film composers used Bloch's cello representation of King Solomon as an example in tying music to the subjectivity of individual characters. The role of the cello in Frank Bridge's Oration (1930) is different. This grim work, which has no given program but seems drenched in the imagery of the battlefield and in a truly chilling attempt at transcendence at the end, will be worth the purchase price for many listeners; it's not well known, and the memorial role carried by the cello is unique. Isserlis, who plays with deep feeling throughout without overdoing it in the least, gets especially fine support here from the Deutsches Symophonie-Orchester Berlin under Hugh Wolff. Hough's The Loneliest Wilderness, based on a poem by Herbert Read, seems mysteriously connected to both of the earlier works yet is lighter and more lyrical, with the cello weaving in and out of the basic thematic structure and providing a rhapsodic feel despite the dark mood. The album as a whole stands up to multiple hearings, and the whole adds something to each individual work. Bravo!

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